There are a number of methodological challenges that arise when analyzing excerpts from Midrash Tanchuma, a set of post-Talmudic commentaries on the Bible. Some of these issues are common to all, or nearly all, ancient sources; others are more specific to this particular text. As with all instances of drawing generalizations from a single source, it is important to keep in mind that it is possible that this is an exceptional text and not in fact representative of a mainstream viewpoint. According to one scholar, who believes that “rabbinic sources may at best refract the social realities of a handful of Jewish communities, and at worst may reflect only the utopian visions of a relative handful of Jewish men,”1 there is even less to glean. Nonetheless, even if the text reflects on only a small group of people, it still represents ancient thought. In addition, the fact that this text retained its place within an oral tradition and, later, was published, suggests that it did hold meaning for a noteworthy group of people, even if that group was a small, powerful minority.
The difficulty of deducing women’s spirituality from a text that suggests certain roles for or actions by women is inherent in nearly all the sources available to us today, because they were authored by men. This would not be true if we (as a class) were not assuming a difference between men’s and women’s spirituality at the time, an assumption that is based on the fact that there were different religious practices proscribed for men and women. It is important to be aware that there is an unavoidable yet unsubstantiated assumption inherent within any conclusions drawn from observed practice regarding spiritual experience.
The name of the work that I chose comes from Rabbi Tanchuma ben R' Abba, circa 370 CE2, but it is uncertain when these midrashim, originally transmitted orally, were compiled and written down. Some of the contents of the Midrash Tanchuma may date from later or earlier than 370 CE. It is possible that the particular excerpt that I have chosen was added much later, in a different locale. The methodological challenge that this presents is that I do not have a clear time and place in which to situate the midrash. Therefore, I am unable to draw supportive or opposing evidence from other similarly situated sources relevant to women’s spirituality. Nonetheless, as this midrash is only one among a large compilation of midrashim (sing. midrash), it is not unreasonable to view the entire compilation as representative of a wide swath of time. By situating the text according to the rabbinic personalities that are quoted and assuming that all the texts originate more or less in the same time period, I may succeed in situating the texts to some degree.
Midrash Tanchuma is a compilation of homiletic midrashim, commentaries that examine closely the language of specific Biblical verses, often using anecdotes as a method of exploration.3 This suggests that the intended audience is not a few select students, but rather a wider public whom these stories were meant to inspire and/or reproach. Knowing whether this audience was all-male, all-female, or both would help me understand the intention behind the oration. Due to this gap in my knowledge, the conclusions that I will draw from the moralistic elements of this text are both highly theoretical and varied. Furthermore, the midrash does not clearly proscribe certain behaviors to either men or to women; if it did, I might conclude that the prohibited behavior was prevalent at the time. As it stands, the richness of this midrashic text make it more, not less, difficult to analyze.
The midrash that I have chosen to analyze is appended to a Biblical verse (Exodus 38:21) that describes the materials donated by the Israelites for the building of the Tabernacle. The midrash describes a scene in which everyone brings the materials that they have available to them in their homes, be it silver, gold, copper, or precious stones. The midrash states:
“The women said, “What do we have to give as a contribution to the Tabernacle?” They arose and brought the mirrors and went to Moses. When Moses saw those mirrors, he was angry at them [the women]. He said to the Israelites, “take lashes and break their thighs. Why do we need mirrors?” The Holy One, Blessed-Be-He, said to Moses, “Moses, you despise these? These mirrors set up all of these hosts [of people] in Egypt! Take [the mirrors] from them and use them to make a copper laver for the Priests, from which the priests will purify themselves.”4
The midrash, on the previous page, had explained that these mirrors were first used in Egypt. Pharaoh had decreed that the men could not sleep at home, intending to prevent sexual relations among the Israelites.
Rabbi Shimon bar Chalafta said, “What did the Israelite girls do? They went to draw water from the Nile, and the Holy One, Blessed-Be-He, brought them small fish in their jars and they would sell them and cook them and buy wine and go to the field and feed their husbands there…After they ate and drank, they [the women] would take their mirrors and look into them [such that they would reflect themselves] with their husbands. She would say, “I am more pleasing than you” and he would say “I am more pleasing than you.” And in result they would ease themselves into desire and have children.5
Scholar Phyllis Bird suggests that in order to reconstruct women’s roles, a “fundamental shift in focus”6 is necessary. For Bird, “religious institutions and activities must be viewed in relation to other social institutions, such as the family”7 In this midrash, the women were donating materials to the Tabernacle side-by-side with the men. As the Tabernacle was a place of communal worship as well as of individual sacrifices, this suggests that women had some connection to the communal place of worship. Bird’s idea that religious and domestic activities are intertwined is supported by this midrash: in reward for ensuring the future survival of the Jewish people, the women are allowed to contribute to the building of the Tabernacle. It would, however, be difficult to draw further conclusions from this text regarding women’s participation in the actual functioning of the Tabernacle.
It is significant that it is women who bring a household item. Perhaps the women’s openness to the idea that a domestic object could be used for the construction of a spiritual structure suggests that women were accustomed to creating a spiritual subtext within their domestic day-to-day lives. This would support Carol Meyer’s postulation that the figurines with female torsos found in archaeological digs link women to household worship.8
The midrash is not intended to be a historical documentary, but instead it intends to moralize. If the audience is all-men, the midrash may suggest a number of things. Moses, who is held up at the greatest leader the Jewish people ever had, misunderstands something that the women appear to understand intuitively. Perhaps the midrash is offering a piece of friendly advice to men who do not understand their wives’ spirituality by suggesting that women’s intuition is in line with Divine Will in a way that men may not understand. According to that reading, this midrash represents a validation of women’s religious expression. Alternatively, the teacher of this midrash might be seeking to underscore a message regarding the sacredness of sexuality and the importance of reproduction. Perhaps it intends to reaffirm that women’s true value is as child bearers, those who are responsible for ensuring the continuation of the Jews.
If the audience includes women, this midrash may be seeking to reinforce the importance of pleasing one’s husband. Perhaps it intends to encourage women to draw a parallel between the Tabernacle and their own homes in an attempt to elevate the mundane domestic tasks of their lives to Divine service. Perhaps it seeks to encourage pleasing one’s husband and child-bearing. If this is a homily, its moral is not at all clear, so, contrary to what I stated previously, perhaps this midrash is not a homily at all. Maybe it simply represents an effort to show that the women, too, participated in the building of a House for God.
1 Ross Shepard Kraemer. Her Share of the Blessings: Women’s Religions among Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman World. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 93.
2 http://www.jewishstudies.org/courses/foundations4/samplelecture.htm (Accessed 3/3/08 11:27 am)
3 http://www.religiousstudies.uncc.edu/jcreeves/types_of_midrash.htm (Accessed 3/3/08 11:23 am)
4 מדרש תנחומא,פרשת פקודי, תרלג (בני ברק, ישראל :מהדורה מהוצאת ספרי אור החיים, תשנ"ח לפ"ק) (my translation)
5 מדרש תנחומא,פרשת פקודי, תרלב (בני ברק, ישראל :מהדורה מהוצאת ספרי אור החיים, תשנ"ח לפ"ק) (my translation)
6 Phyllis A. Bird Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities – Women and Gender in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 84.
7, Phyllis A. Bird. Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities: Women and Gender in Ancient Israel. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 84.
8 Carol Meyers, “Household Functions and Female Roles”, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).