What happens when women writers re-imagine culture? What happens when we re-imagine that masculine foundation of Western culture, the Bible?
A few years ago, in my book on contemporary American women’s poetry, Stealing the Language, I surveyed what I call “revisionist myth-making” by contemporary women poets. Arguing that vital myths have at all times a potential for being reinterpreted, I saw women writers’ revisionist versions of classical myths as “a vigorous and varied invasion of the sanctuaries of language where our meanings for ‘male’ and ‘female’ are stored’.’ A brief example: Muriel Rukeyser’s “Myth” recounts an unrecorded conversation between Oedipus and the Sphinx. Old and blind, Oedipus wants to know where he went wrong, and the Sphinx explains that he answered her famous questions incorrectly:
When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered, Man. You didn’t say anything about women. “When you say Man” said Oedipus, you include women too. Everyone knows that” She said, “That’s what you think”
What I find myself doing now is an extension of that work. As a critic I am noticing that the present period is generating new, probing, often outrageous feminist readings and re-imaginings of scriptural texts; and as a poet I am writing some myself.
It is obvious that writing about the Bible is a riskier matter than writing about Oedipus and the Sphinx. For “myth” signifies “stories that are sacred to some other group” while “scripture” signifies “stories that are sacred to our group.” Yet as the poet Adrienne Rich has asserted, “Revision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a critical direction—is for women more than a chapter in cultural history; it is an act of survival.” Furthermore, I believe that what may seem blasphemous and irreligious about feminist re-imaginings of Scripture is in fact an almost inevitable outcome of Jewish tradition. For are we not told that “there is always another interpretation” of Torah?
Throughout the history of the Diaspora, the Jewish imagination has flowered through midrash (storytelling about the Bible)—in which spiritual insight is inseparable from fantasy, humor, earthliness—and if the composers of midrash have until now been men, isn’t that all the more reason for women to begin composing them? How can we have a Judaism that speaks for us all, unless women start joining that extended collective conversation? Let me add here my conviction that the spiritual life of humanity is too important to be left to those who are its official guardians. Particularly in a time of growing fundamentalisms and orthodoxies, I believe it is the business of poets to look into their own souls, perceive what visions and hear what voices they find there, and inscribe them for all of us.
I would not claim that my midrashim are correct, or authoritative, or final. God forbid! Yet I feel impelled by new shades of meaning, new ways of understanding, that are as valid as the old. And as a woman, I feel acutely that the Bible as we have it is an overwhelmingly masculine document in which female values have been buried—but not killed.
I am trying to expand the boundaries of feminist midrash by re-examining and re-imagining the male as well as the female figures in the biblical text: hence, Adam, Noah, Joshua. The fact is that these men are here and will not go away, in the Book or in reality, and they are by no means all alike. It is not a monolithic book, and the men are not monolithic patriarchs.
For me the story of Adam and Eve is (among other things) about the defeat of a goddess who once presided in her garden, and the upshot of her downfall. This idea is of course strongly influenced by Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess and Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman. In reading Primo Levi and thinking about his suicide, it occurred to me that Noah’s drunkenness (Genesis 9:21) might have resulted from a traumatic case of survivor guilt. And when in the Bible I find a split between the values of global compassion and the values of exclusionary (self-)righteousness, at both the human and the divine level, I think: isn’t this the split that still tears Jews apart today?
Those of us who are doves want to claim that our Judaism is the true one, while those who are hawks want to claim that their version of Judaism is the essential truth. But the truth is that Judaism in its breadth and depth includes and contains contradictory moral positions. What if the conqueror Joshua already knew this?
Alicia Ostriker is a poet and critic who teaches at Rutgers University. The midrashim here are from work-in-progress on the Bible, The Nakedness of Fathers. A longer essay from that work, “Entering the Tents” will appear in a forthcoming issue of Feminist Studies.
Was her garden. Was her tree, her snake, her attributes, her happiness. This was long ago, around and around, trees all gone, long ago.
Between the thrilling light in one’s head, white and vibrant, the shatteringly white light of the sunball as it climbs daily through warm air above the horizon, and the knots of fainter light within all material forms, there is constant communication. There is a triangle with ourselves, God and the world at its three corners.
Sleepy and warm, deep time, wake up. Stand up, look around. Stretch arms, recognize beauty. Meadows, sultry valleys, growing objects. Interesting. Innumerable. Single set of laws produces plum peach apple quince banana grapefruit persimmon mango pineapple pomegranate grape strawberry melon. Has produced probably all animals in their uniformity and variety. Knowledge exciting, thinking it and touching.
Listen What is that sound
Never, never to fly above earth or to go far underneath it. This was wrongly done. Also water, we can’t breathe in it, I’m angry. He swings a stick, soft grey crenellated material comes out, along with blood. What he can chew he eats. He knocks bananas down that can’t be reached, this is a stick, and he joyously eats the bananas. Now he is tired. He bangs with a stick on the hard ground. Dear mother, let me in.
She cannot believe he has forgotten the dialogues with the animals. He denies evrything, he claims he never understood their languages. Maybe you did, you’re the natural one, he grumbles. It makes her almost cry with exasperation. Remember, she wants to say, how witty the birds were? How timid the earthworms? Remember how the horses would lose their patience and interrupt? But if she reminds him, he hits her.