Shera Aranoff Tuchman, Sandra E. Rapoport. Moses' Women. Jersey City: KTAV Publishing House, 2008. xix + 329 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60280-017-5.
Reviewed by Vanessa Sasson
Published on H-Judaic (January, 2009)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Women of the Midrashic Imagination
Moses’ Women by Shera Aranoff Tuchmann and Sandra E. Rapoport is an enchanting work brimming with legends and lore and recounted with masterful storytelling techniques. Tuchmann and Rapoport bring the story of the Exodus to life, weaving together a beautiful tapestry of narratives from a vast array of rabbinic sources.
The book opens with an introduction and is then broken down into forty-seven chapters that follow the development of the book of Exodus, with special attention paid to the passages that have something to do with the women in Moses’ life--namely, Jochebed, Miriam, the midwives, the pharaoh’s daughter, Zipporah, and the Kushite woman. Each chapter focuses on a few biblical verses and proceeds to unpack these using a wide range of rabbinic commentary as the basis for their discussion.
The introduction by Tuchmann provides a brief history of how the book came into being. Here we learn that Moses’ Women is, to a certain extent, a felicitous surprise for the authors. While the women of the book of Genesis are obviously pertinent and even pivotal to the development of the biblical saga, the women of the book of Exodus are, at first glance, rather marginal by contrast. It is only by virtue of having run a course on the book of Exodus for her congregation that the vitality of the women of the book of Exodus finally became known to Tuchmann. The women surrounding Moses throughout his life take on extraordinary roles in rabbinic commentary that far exceed their limited presence in the biblical text. By exploring their Midrashic stories in depth, the authors witness the women of the book of Exodus erupt into life, discovering them to have been more heroic, more compassionate, and more present than the biblical story initially discloses.
In the introduction, Tuchmann also explains her understanding of the role Midrash plays in Bible study. She poetically describes Midrash as the “’white spaces’ between the black letters of the text” (p. xv). Midrash--be it from the earlier strata of the tradition or produced in the twentieth century--is deemed indispensable for understanding the meaning of the Bible. The authors consequently often tell the stories of the women of Exodus without making an explicit distinction between the Bible and its commentary, leading to one of the most prevalent weaknesses of the volume. While the authors are clearly well versed in rabbinic commentary and display a wide range of familiarity with sources that span the full gamut of the Jewish interpretive tradition, the story of these biblical women is not always related as clearly as it could be. While the distinction is delineated much of the time, there are many instances throughout the volume in which the biblical text, rabbinic commentary, and their own personal interpretive flair are intertwined ambiguously, leaving the reader--if he or she is not thoroughly versed in biblical and rabbinic studies--unclear as to what story belongs to which source.
There is one additional weakness to the volume that bears mentioning. Although the book was not produced in an academic climate nor intended for an academic audience, the near-total absence of modern scholarship in the authors’ repertoire is unfortunate. The authors make use of such an impressive range of rabbinic commentary that they urge the readers to take inspiration from rabbinic discourse in its entirety. They clearly believe that the biblical text requires commentary for clarity to be possible and they use any and every rabbinic resource available to them to achieve this end. The consequence is a beautiful retelling of a very old story, valuable to anyone interested in the Exodus narrative and the women therein. Indeed, I often found myself in awe of their findings, as they uncovered and explored Midrashic traditions that I missed in my own research. Their combined ability to work together to unearth the hidden meanings of the Bible is impressive, and it is therefore a shame that they limited their quest to rabbinic sources alone.
Modern scholarship has a great deal to offer their quest, as scholars have explored and investigated the biblical text from many vantage points that are not always available to rabbinic commentators for obvious reasons. There is much to be learned from ancient Near Eastern scholarship, feminist readings of the text, and comparative study--to name but a few. None of these resources are utilized by the authors, thereby producing a limited reading. Consider, for example, the question of Moses’ name, which they explore in their book. While the commentaries provide a number of intriguing possibilities to explain his unusual name, the authors would have benefited from reading modern scholarship that would have surely enhanced their analysis. Despite their obvious comfort with the Hebrew language, they do not seem to be aware that modern scholars have questioned the translation of the name “Mosheh” as being, not “drawn from the water” (as the Bible translates it) but rather, “the drawer out.” Similarly with the question of Moses’ genealogy presented in Exodus 6: despite the attention paid to this passage, the authors nevertheless fail to notice that Jochebed and Amram are described as having been aunt and nephew--something modern scholarship has addressed in depth, leading to fascinating interpretations of what the birth story of Moses might in fact have been all about.
It is clear that neither of the authors wrote from an academic perspective, but there is no reason to discount academic findings and investigation. Indeed, if they are willing to freely appropriate a wide range of commentaries all the way into the twentieth century to gain as rich an understanding of the text as possible, why not likewise borrow from scholarship? The early rabbinic writers certainly made use of the resources available to them, borrowing characters and ideas from their cultural environment and incorporating them into their exegesis and the authors could have benefited from doing similarly.
That being said, Moses’ Women is nevertheless an enjoyable read. The authors’ knowledge of rabbinic interpretation and their breadth in this field is impressive, and their love of the material is inspiring.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Vanessa Sasson. Review of Tuchman, Shera Aranoff; Rapoport, Sandra E., Moses' Women.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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