Creating Humanity and Midrash in the Divine Image

Rabbi Shai Cherry

By Rabbi Shai Cherry

Parshat Bereshit

When teaching midrash, I enjoy showing how paintings are just as much midrash as classical rabbinical texts.

A Renaissance painter, Bacchiacca (1494-1557), depicted Eve lovingly holding Abel aloft, while Cain, vying for her attention, tugs at her hem. The Torah gives us no indication that Cain murdered Abel due to Eve’s maternal favoritism, but that is what Bacchiacca suggests. Blame the woman!

Earlier, in the Garden, Eve was punished by God for her transgression: “Your desire will be for your man, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). The traditional commentators try to determine if the husband’s rule over his wife is general or limited to the beginning of the verse, which references her desire. In either case, patriarchy is planted in the garden.
Bruria is among the few women mentioned explicitly in the Talmud. Rivka Lubitch, an Israeli rabbinic advocate for women, imagines what is found in Bruria’s Torah: “Your desire will be for your woman, and she will rule over you.” Lubitch’s midrash explains that “whoever desires someone is ruled by them; but the Torah of Moses spoke in the language of humans, which is to say, males.”

Lubitch’s midrash is offered in a newly translated volume of the Israeli women’s midrash, edited by Tamar Biala, entitled “Dirshuni.” Biala unpacks each midrash for those unfamiliar with rabbinic literature.

Bruria, Biala explains, is the wife of Rabbi Meir who is known for having variant readings in his Torah! Moreover, since Hebrew is a gendered language, b’nei adam, the words we translate as humans, is literally, “the sons of Adam.” The recognition that the Torah (of Moses) is written in the language of “humans” is found frequently in the Talmud where it is used to neutralize a hyper-literal reading of grammatical conventions or common idioms.
Lubitch reinterprets this common rabbinic notion to destabilize and uproot the Torah’s patriarchal origin story of both gender and sexual orientation. In our world of power and politics, whoever possesses what another desires enjoys the advantage. Lubitch, Biala and the other writers in “Dirshuni” have appropriated the traditional method of midrash and written themselves into the tradition. For those of us familiar with rabbinic literature and supportive of their efforts, the result is breathtaking

At Congregation Adath Jeshurun, we are celebrating this year 5783 as the Year of the Woman. A series of distinguished female authors, scholars and Torah teachers will lead many of our educational programs. For regular Shabbat services, we are highlighting female voices whose wisdom is now enriching our tradition.

The first female rabbi, Regina Jonas, was ordained in Berlin in 1935. In 1972, Sally Priesand became the first American woman to be ordained.

In the 50 years since then, we have benefited as a community from the insights and perspectives of the other half of our people. We will, of course, continue to bring the widest range of Jewish talent after the Year of the Woman, but we wanted to begin the second half of this century of woman’s rabbinic leadership with a year explicitly devoted to women’s voices.

Feminism has also generated midrash by men now able to see Torah differently from our male ancestors. Years ago, I noted that the language of human creation in Genesis One (verse 27), for example, is not how it is usually translated, male and female. Our verse in Genesis One says God created humanity “masculine and feminine” (zakhar u’n’kevah). (When God instructs Noah to bring male and female animals onto the ark, the Hebrew is ish v’ishah [Genesis 7:2].)

One of our congregants, Mikayla Fassler, astutely noted that such an expression is not necessarily binary, masculine and/or feminine. Like “day and night,” the expression might be a merism, one that is inclusive of everything in between — like twilight.

Just as the divine image in which all humans are created is neither exclusively masculine nor feminine, the Torah may be suggesting that human gender identity is also not exclusively binary.

Rabbi Shai Cherry is the rabbi of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, the featured lecturer for The Great Courses’ “Introduction to Judaism” and author of “Torah through Time: Understanding Bible Commentary from the Rabbinic Period to Modern Times” and “Coherent Judaism: Constructive Theology, Creation, and Halakhah.” The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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