Feminist Reading, Midrash, Parshat HaShavua

What’s In a House? (Shemot)

As you may know, I love midrash. Midrash is a type of Jewish text that simultaneously pays close attention to the specific language of the Torah, and usually does something creative and unexpected when interpreting the text. Midrash is the place where deep reverence for the Hebrew Bible and unrestrained spiritual imagination coincide. The heyday of classical midrash was roughly between 200-1000 CE, after which this type of reading was set aside in favor of more plain-sense interpretations, beginning with the medieval French rabbi Rashi in the 11th century. 

However, the practice of midrash is alive and well in our time, and new collections aim to reproduce that brilliant combination of creative imagination grounded deep in Torah text. In particular, in the last half century we have begun to amass midrash from voices that had previously not been recorded in the midrashic canon. A new book appeared a few years ago, collecting midrashim in Hebrew that had been written by Israeli women scholars. This book, Dirshuni (“interpret me!”), will be released in English translation this spring. But since I am writing now, I wanted to share one powerful midrash on the beginning of the book of Exodus, in my translation. When the book comes out, I hope you purchase it and update my translation! This midrash comes from Rivka Lovitz, who has described herself as an “Orthodox feminist Israeli”. 

“And [the midwives] did not do according to what the king of Egypt had spoken to them, and they let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17)

What is “and they let the boys live” (literally: and they livened the boys)? They gave them life in Torah (or: through Torah), for “life” means nothing other than “Torah”. 

And who are the ones who taught the children of Israel Torah all the years that Israel served under oppression? Behold these are Shifrah and Puah, who would pass from house to house, from woman to woman, and they would gather there all the children of Israel at the foot of the bed of the one giving birth. First they would help the woman give birth, and after they would enliven the children with Torah. 

Therefore it is said, “And because the midwives feared God, God established houses for them” (Exodus 1:21) – these are houses of studies (batei midrashot). For every house that a woman gave birth in became for them a beit midrash, a house of study, until Israel was full of houses of study in abundance.

From Hebrew edition of Dirshuni, which will be released in English soon: https://smile.amazon.com/dp/1684580951/?coliid=I1YCKH9DWW7D3X&colid=3KAQC7U62OGR7&psc=1&ref_=lv_ov_lig_dp_it

I love this midrash because it gives us a completely new understanding of the mysterious reward that God offers the midwives for being God-fearing and preserving life. God establishes houses for them, but what does that mean? Rashi suggests we should read houses as dynasties, and the midwives who preserved life have their own lineage magnified as a result, with kings and priests descending from them. 

Rivka Lovitz, however, presents us with a different type of house – the house of study, or beit midrash (perhaps we could translate it as a space in which creative, life-giving teaching is transmitted). Shifrah and Puah become the first teachers of Torah in the book of Exodus. May we keep learning from them, and from all our teachers, ancient and modern, who truly turn Torah into an ever-growing tree of life.