Narrow perspectives can lead to broader understandings

By Rabbi Emma Gottlieb (She/Her)

Not long ago, I was studying the famous tale of Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al with my weekly Torah shiur group (Thursdays at 12:45pm online for anyone who would like to join us!).

We read through a contemporary D’var Torah from Rabbi Valerie Lieber in The Women’s Torah Commentary, a collection of essays on the haftarot by female rabbis and Torah scholars. Toward the end of her commentary, Rabbi Lieber writes the following, “Jezebel (was) determined, clever, and ruthless. We forgive Rebekah, Tamar, Michal, and Sarah for these very same characteristics… Had Jezebel been on the side of Judaism and a supporter of (HaShem), she would be praised for all the attributes for which she is maligned… While Elijah leaves the world in a chariot of fire with a reputation for courage, compassion, and goodness, Jezebel’s courage, loyalty, and power are usually forgotten. Yet without Jezebel, Elijah would not have risen to glory, nor captured the imagination of the Jewish people.”

What an interesting take on the importance of the antihero in biblical tradition! And yet, as one of my students pointed out, we might not have come to this very contemporary perspective on the value of the villain (villainess, in this instance), if we weren’t approaching the text from a specifically feminist perspective. As Rabbi Lieber notes, “The description of Jezebel, the strong woman who leads the cause against the one true God, challenges Jewish feminists. Here is one of the few women in the Bible who is named, wields power, and dominates several scenes. As feminists, we want to find characteristics in her to emulate. Nevertheless, it is difficult to respect this queen who has the Jewish prophets slaughtered, and who gives financial support to the prophets of idols.”

As contemporary Jewish women, we want to be able to lift up the few-and-far-between women in our sacred texts, however in this case, it is difficult to do so. And yet, that need to find something redemptive in the character of Queen Jezebel leads to the beautiful teaching about the value of the antihero. While a feminist approach to Torah study may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it is not a new idea for us to study and interpret Torah through the lens of our own time, context and perspective. In every age, the challenges and learning of a particular generation influence they way they think about, talk about and interact with the Torah. Certainly we can see the different approaches taken by rabbis in different ages of the Mishnah and Talmud, especially if we compare them to the approaches of earlier or later generations. From the ancient Israelites, to the Rabbis of the Great Assembly, to Rashi and Rambam to the Kabbalists and the Chassidim to our contemporary Rabbis and thinkers — each generation brings their own experience to bear on Torah — each time illuminating new ways of understanding ancient words.

While we may not all aspire to connect to or emulate Jezebel the idolatrous queen, we can each relate to the experience of wanting to feel deep connections with both the figures and concepts within Torah. Sometimes we find our way to those connections through the teachings of previous generations, even when their historical or situational context has little to do with our own. Other times, we find our way there through applying our own lived experience and perspective. Through a narrow focus, we just might find we are able to broaden our understanding and deepen our learning and appreciation for the sacred words we hand down from one generation to the next.


Temple Israel

• Published in the PDF edition of the March 2022 issue – Click here to get it.

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