How do you read? Perhaps surprisingly, this is one of the most important questions you can ask in Judaism. Our tradition is based on reading sacred text. And yet, no two people read alike. Given a shared text, people with different perspectives will discover different insights. This is the beauty of Torah study in community, but also a potential barrier to shared understanding.
Over time, the early sages who interpreted the Torah developed a list of techniques for reading. By making their reading methods explicit, the sages hoped to help students access this sacred activity and, more importantly, to distinguish their reading community from other reading communities that had begun to emerge. The text, after all, is fixed and can’t be changed, but what you claim it means has much more fluidity. A shared set of reading principles and practices constitutes a community by leading to shared interpretations of the fixed text.
Rabbi Ishmael’s set of thirteen reading practices is the most widely adopted rabbinic list. My favorite one is called gezeira shava, where you find an identical word in two different places in the Hebrew Bible and discover additional meaning by comparing the usage in both contexts. On the one hand, this might just be good literary close reading. On the other hand, sometimes the contexts are truly unrelated, and we begin to realize the ideological nature of the rule – Torah has infinite productive potential which emanates from individual verses (simple meaning) and resonates between multiple verses (gezeira shava analysis). Wielded by the wise, these tools of interpretation can produce meaning we might otherwise have missed.
However, any set of rules for reading can leave out important perspectives. The Jewish community today is the inheritor of the rabbinic interpretative community, or rather, the male rabbinic interpretative community. Most of the texts that were written down and preserved enabled male voices to reach the present day, excluding the many women who must have had interpretations and textual practices of their own.
I’ve recently begun reading a book called Womanist Midrash, by professor and reverend Wilda C. Gafney. She writes:
“[W]omanist midrash is a set of interpretive practices…that attends to marginalized characters in biblical narratives, especially women and girls, intentionally including and centering on non-Israelite peoples and enslaved persons…[W]omanist midrash is an outgrowth of my experience from pulpit and pew with the sanctified imagination in black preaching; I have come to recognize the sanctified imagination as a type of African American indigenous midrash.” (p. 3)
Dr. Gafney has deep scholarship in Hebrew language and rabbinic tradition, and approaches the text from a different interpretive community – that of Christian black women. She offers a list of twelve reading practices, including questions such as:
(1) Who is speaking and/or active?
(12) Who is God in the text? Is s/he/it invested in the flourishing of black women, our families, and our world?
When I read a text like the one from this week’s parashah, Beha’alotcha, I see great value in learning from within my reading community (male Jewish) and extending a space at the table for other reading communities who can broaden the text and my understanding.
Miriam returns to center stage in a short story near the end of the portion. She and Aaron talk about Moses in a way that angers God, who afflicts her. After Moses prays for her healing, she is sent outside of the camp for seven days before she can return. The text notes that while she was outside the camp, the entire community stayed put, waiting for her. This will be Miriam’s last mention before we learn of her death. Presumably, decades pass in which we hear nothing of her. Rabbinic tradition has little to say about her in this time period, taking its cue from the biblical silence. It would be easy for us as readers to just move on, and forget about Miriam in the midst of the other wild stories that happen in the book of Numbers.
But perhaps we would do well to join our Israelite ancestors in slowing down and spending time with characters such as Miriam. What can we learn from her? How can we better hear her voice? Dr. Gafney offers her midrashic take: “One way of interpreting Miriam’s absence from subsequent wilderness narratives is to suggest that neither Miriam’s conduct nor her authority was contested, when those of Moses and Aaron were challenged repeatedly.” (p. 135) The relative silence around Miriam can be a cue to dismiss her as a leader, or as evidence of her overwhelming success as a leader. It all depends on how you read.