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Midrash and Aggadah

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Leaders in Israel's Religious Communities

Since the late twentieth century, Israeli women have begun to assume leadership positions that are undoubtedly “religious” in both content and form. In the Reform and Conservative movements, gender equality has existed for decades, while in the most traditional ultra-Orthodox societies distinctive female religious leadership exists only within halakhic constraints. In modern Orthodoxy, measured changes have led to significant changes over the years and a new generation of religious leadership.

Yael Wife of Heber The Kenite: Midrash and Aggadah

The midrash praises Yael and includes her among the devout women converts. According to the rabbis, Yael’s actions helped God to realize God’s plan by punishing Sisera measure for measure for his wicked deeds, and by affording Israel a military victory over its enemies.

Infertile Wife in Rabbinic Judaism

Only men are legally obligated to procreate, but there is disagreement over whether that obligation compels a man to divorce his wife after ten childless years. The initial infertility of the matriarchs reinforces the efficacy of prayer by demonstrating that the individual matriarchs’ suffering and supplications are what provoked a divine response.

Huldah, the Prophet: Midrash and Aggadah

Huldah is one of the seven women prophets. The rabbis explain that she was a descendant of Rahab and Joshua, and that she prophesied along with Jeremiah in the time of King Josiah.

Hebrew Women in the Wilderness: Midrash and Aggadah

The Rabbis portray the women of the generation that wandered in the wilderness as righteous, not caught up in the sins that swept the men of Israel.

Hebrew Women in Egypt: Midrash and Aggadah

The Rabbis famously maintain that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt by merit of the righteous women of that generation, who strove mightily to continue to bring forth children, regardless of the grueling servitude and despite Pharaoh’s decree that the male children be killed.

Gomer, daughter of Diblaim: Midrash and Aggadah

According to the Rabbis, God commanded Hosea to marry Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, to teach him proper conduct for one who was to prophesy to Israel. Despite Gomer’s harlotry, the rabbis interpret her story as proof that, even when God is angry with Israel, God still loves Israel.

Feminist Theology

Jewish feminist theology focuses on central Jewish categories, themes, and modes of expression—for example, God, prayer, Torah, and halakhah—and asks who created them and whose interests they reflect. It raises meta-questions about Jewish tradition.

Esau, Wives of: Midrash and Aggadah

Esau’s three wives are given more context and background by the rabbis than in the Torah. Esau’s first two wives, Adah and Judith, are described as adulterous and idolatrous, while his third wife, Mahalat, is interpreted as either Esau’s repentance or his fall further into evil.

Divorce: The Halakhic Perspective

Many scholars claim that Jewish marriage is a matter of contract between two willing parties and as a result they, not the state, can decide to get divorced, in the same way that they decided to marry. However, more critically inclined scholars, and especially feminist scholars, take issue with those who complacently remark on the “progressive, and contractual” ease with which Jewish divorce takes place.

Daughters of Zelophehad: Midrash and Aggadah

The midrash rains many praises on the daughters of Zelophehad, describing them all as equally wise and virtuous, as well as exegetes. The midrash also says that they are mentioned by the Patriarchs and are so righteous that they are blessed with children despite their old age.

Daughter of Pharaoh: Midrash and Aggadah

The rabbis depict the daughter of Pharaoh, who rescued the baby Moses, as a righteous figure who did not follow her father’s wicked ways but rather converted and ceased worshiping idols. She was highly praised by the Rabbis, and the midrash includes her among the devout women converts and those who entered the Garden of Eden while still alive.

Concubine of a Levite: Midrash and Aggadah

The story of the concubine at Gibeah, who is murdered when her husband sends her out to a crowd of Benjamites, is one of the most shocking narratives in the Bible. The rabbis do not blame the unnamed woman for her fate and the ensuing crisis, instead placing the blame at the feet of the Levite and the leaders of Israel.

Bilhah: Midrash and Aggadah

Bilhah was the maidservant of Rachel and mother of Dan and Naphtali. The rabbis fill in details about her life, her relationship with Jacob, and the confusing incident between Bilhah and Reuben, Jacob’s eldest son.

Beruryah

Beruryah is the only woman in rabbinic literature who studies Torah. Identified as the daughter of Rabbi Hananiah b. Teradyon and the wife of Rabbi Meir, she delivers halakhic and homiletical statements and is described as a prodigious learner.

Rayna Batya Berlin

Rayna Batya Berlin was a Lithuanian woman committed to religious study who argued that women should be able to study the Torah and the Talmud. The only source of her life was written by her nephew, who describes her frustration with her subjugated status in her community and how she generally suffered in silence.

Bathsheba: Midrash and Aggadah

As in the Bible, Bathsheba plays a secondary role in the midrashim about her husband, King David, and her son, King Solomon. The rabbis view her as a righteous, guiltless woman, both during David’s life and as an advisor to Solomon.

Athaliah: Midrash and Aggadah

Athaliah was one of the few women to rule Israel, which she did for six years. She was very powerful and is described as evil, as she radically changed traditional practices and executed almost all of the members of the Davidic lineage.

Asenath: Midrash and Aggadah

Asenath is mentioned in the Torah as “the daughter of Poti-phera,” an Egyptian priest. Whether she actually descended from the Egyptians or Israelites is a contested matter in the Rabbinic tradition.

Grace Aguilar

Grace Aguilar was an Anglo-Jewish poet, historical romance writer, domestic novelist, Jewish emancipator, religious reformer, educator, social historian, theologian, and liturgist. In her short life, she wrote twice as many books as Jane Austen, from popular historical romances to an introduction to Judaism that was used by both churches and synagogues.

Achsah: Midrash and Aggadah

The daughter of Caleb, Achsah is depicted in rabbinic tradition as both beautiful and practical.

Adah 1: Midrash and Aggadah

Adah was one of Lamech’s wives whose legacy was observable not only in her own children but also in her influence on her fellow Israelites.

Abortion: Halakhic Perspectives

While halakhic discussions about abortion largely excluded the arguments and perspectives of women, in general poskim (decisors) determined that a woman’s life takes priority over the life of the fetus. Halakhic perspectives have explored the point at which the fetus is considered a human and taken the mother’s physical and psychological health into account in determining her right to abort.

Abishag: Midrash and Aggadah

Abishag’s story in the Bible shows her strength and independence, as she insists David marry her and rebukes his answer when he refuses. Some midrashim use her story to show David’s tenacity in his old age, but Abishag is not explicitly interpreted as wicked or deceitful.

Abigail: Midrash and Aggadah

The Rabbis depict Abigail as a wise and practical woman, capable of acting at the right moment and in the right way. Instead of being based on political or economic considerations, her and David’s marriage was motivated by love and mutual appreciation. Furthermore, Abigail saves David from committing unnecessary bloodshed, while at the same time assuring her future.

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