Midrash and Aggadah

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Lynn Gottlieb

One of the first ten women rabbis, Lynn Gottlieb became a voice for peace between Jews and Muslims.
"The Songs of Joy," by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

The confrontational face of Miriam

Susan Reimer-Torn

When we are first introduced to Miriam in the Bible, the times are bleak. The Egyptian Pharaoh has decreed that all baby boys born to the Hebrew slaves be immediately put to death.

Vashti: Midrash and Aggadah

Vashti, the wife of Ahasuerus, was banished when her husband summoned her to appear before the men at their revelry. The Babylonian Rabbis tend to cast Vashti in an extremely negative light, as wicked, a Jew-hater, and wanton. In contrast, their counterparts in Erez Israel portrayed her in a positive manner.

Tamar: Midrash and Aggadah

The Tamar narrative in the Bible casts the characters in a human, and not very complimentary, light. The later Rabbis sharply criticize Judah and his sons, but they describe Tamar positively, despite the fact that she is a convert. Her actions during her relationship with Judah demonstrate her purity, and her behavior shows the proper way in which all future women should perform.

Spirituality in the United States

Jewish women’s spirituality developed historically within the confines of a patriarchal tradition. Over time, feminists have developed rituals and created spaces that honor the unique experiences of women.

Shiphrah: Midrash and Aggadah

Shiphrah was one of the two Hebrew midwives who delivered the children of the Israelites during the Egyptian servitude. She is mentioned only once in the Bible, but the Rabbis identify the midwives with various Biblical heroines, thereby transforming them from secondary characters to central, fully developed figures whose annals spread over additional chapters of the Torah.


The rabbinic discourse of sex has been simultaneously both empowering and sharply disabling for women. In obliging all women to be wives and mothers, it has severely constrained the possibilities for women’s lives, and to a great extent, women’s roles have been denigrated as well.

Sarah: Midrash and Aggadah

The midrash present Sarah as a righteous woman whose actions are worthy of emulation; she converted Gentiles and drew them into the bosom of Judaism. Sarah is described as preeminent in the household. Abraham was ennobled through her and subordinated himself to her; God commanded him to heed his wife, because of her prophetic power.

Ruth: Midrash and Aggadah

Midrash views Ruth very positively, describing her as beautiful, modest, and virtuous. The Rabbis also link Ruth with other revered women, such as Sarah and Rebekah, furthering her portrayal as an exemplary biblical woman. Despite her mother-in-law’s suspicion about the circumstances of her conversion, the midrash clarifies that Ruth converted based solely on her beliefs.

Rebekah: Midrash and Aggadah

Rebekah, one of the four Matriarchs, is characterized by the Rabbis as a prophet and a righteous woman. The midrash transforms Rebekah from an individual character with a personal story into a symbol of the realization of God’s promise to Abraham.

Rachel: Midrash and Aggadah

Rachel is depicted in the Torah as Jacob’s beautiful and beloved wife. The midrash portrays Rachel as a prophetess, and her statements and the names she gave her sons contain allusions to the future. Rachel’s merit continued to aid Israel even many years after her demise.

Queen of Sheba: Midrash and Aggadah

The midrash tells the story of how the Queen of Sheba traveled to meet King Solomon and witness his wisdom, posing several scenarios and riddles to test him. After being impressed by his answers, she commits herself to God and converts.

Puah: Midrash and Aggadah

Puah was one of the two Hebrew midwives who delivered the children of the Israelites during the Egyptian servitude. The Rabbis link the midwives with various Biblical heroines, thereby transforming them into central figures. Different midrashic traditions identify the various ways Puah was rewarded for her bravery, and several mention her familial connections to many important biblical figures.

Judith Plaskow

Judith Plaskow is the first Jewish feminist to identify herself as a theologian. Deeply learned in classical and modern Christian theology yet profoundly committed to her own Judaism, Plaskow created a distinctively Jewish theology acutely conscious of its own structure and categories and in dialogue with the feminist theologies of other religions.

Peninnah: Midrash and Aggadah

The narrative of Peninnah centers around her interactions with Hannah, as both women were married to Elkanah. Different midrashic traditions tell stories of how Peninnah treated Hannah, most portraying Peninnah as the antagonist. Peninnah is shown irritating Hannah, although some midrashim argue that Peninnah’s actions were a result of her feeling like the least favorite wife.

Naomi: Midrash and Aggadah

Midrash portrays Naomi favorably, referring to her as righteous and significant. The Rabbis emphasize her dedication to her faith and her commitment to supporting her gentile daughter-in-law, Ruth. She guides Ruth through her conversion, encourages Ruth to maintain her devotion, and raises the child to whom Ruth gives birth.

Miriam: Midrash and Aggadah

Miriam is described in the midrash as part of a family triumvirate of leaders, and the Rabbis assert that she contributed greatly to the redemption of Israel from Egypt. Miriam acted as a leader during the wanderings in the wilderness; by her merit the Israelites were accompanied on their journeys by the well that bears her name: “Miriam’s Well.”

Michal, daughter of Saul: Midrash and Aggadah

The Midrash and Aggadah provide insight into the marriage of Michal, daughter of Saul, to David, to whom she was loyal over her father, Saul. Michal was later punished for publicly disrespecting David.

Mahalath, daughter of Ishmael: Midrash and Aggadah

Midrash and Aggadah present both a positive and a negative take on the marriage of Esau, son of Isaac and Rebekah, to Mahalath, daughter of Ishmael.


Lilith’s character has evolved throughout the years. She began as a female demon common to many Middle Eastern cultures, was transformed by Medieval Jewry into Adam’s first wife, and was finally reclaimed by Jewish feminists as an icon.

Leah: Midrash and Aggadah

Leah is the sister of Rachel and the wife of Jacob. God blesses Leah with children; she has six sons and one daughter, and two of her sons become ancestors of two of the twelve tribes. She may not have been Jacob’s preferred bride, but she is interpreted as extremely selfless and generous.

Keturah: Midrash and Aggadah

Keturah was one of Abraham’s wives. The Rabbis describe her as a woman of virtue, for which she was worthy of being joined to Abraham.

Jochebed: Midrash and Aggadah

The midrash portrays Jochebed as a wise woman who was righteous and God-fearing. By merit of her good deeds, she gave birth to the three leaders of the Exodus generation: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

Jezebel: Midrash and Aggadah

Jezebel is portrayed by the Rabbis as a wicked woman who represents the negative influence of Gentile women who turned Israel’s heart to idolatry; an evil woman who causes the king of Israel to stray from the ways of the Lord. Nevertheless, the Rabbis also indicate a favorable aspect of her character.

Jephthah's Daughter: Midrash and Aggadah

Jephthah’s daughter is portrayed in midrash as a wise and practical woman, well-versed in halakhah and the Torah. The rabbis place the blame for her murder on her father and the High Priest Phinehas.


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