Date of Award
Honors Thesis (Open Access)
Colby College. Religious Studies Dept.
Thomas R.W. Longstaff
Women's roles in religious history have been traditionally described in terms of their relation and value to men. The normative religious texts provide an androcentric perspective on the gender relationships within the early community, the growth of Judaism in "Jacob's House" and the monotheistic worship of God. Yet these literary representations omit an entire half of the experience of the Jewish community: the perspective and participation of women. As Judith Plaskow argues extensively in Standing Again at Sinai, women are defined not in her own terms or in her own voice, but by her relationship and value to men through the androcentric vocabulary of the Torah. This statement is textually illustrated by the authorial and editorial presentation of women and their place in ancient Israelite society in the Torah. As Judaism grew increasingly androcentric in its leadership, women were increasingly reduced to marginal figures in the community by authorial and editorial revisions. Yet the participation of women of ancient Israel is not lost. Instead, the presence of women is buried beneath the androcentric presentation of the early Judaic community, waiting to be excavated by historical and scriptural examination. The retelling of the past is influenced by the present; memory is not static but takes on different shapes depending on the focus of concentration. However, tradition greatly influences the interpretation of religious history as well. In the book of Genesis, the literature emphasizes the divine appointment of male figures such as Abraham the father of the covenant and Jacob who is renamed and claimed by God as "Israel," placing them at the center of Jewish history. As a result, the other figures in these biblical narratives are described in relation to the patriarchs, those male bearers of the covenant, by their service or their value to him. Women are at the bottom of this hierarchy. Although female figures of exceptional quality are noted in later chronicles, such as Ruth, Deborah and Miriam, it is the very nature of their exception that highlights the androcentric editorial focus of the Torah. I agree with Peggy Day, whose own scriptural examination in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, makes the important distinction between the literary representation and the reality of ancient Israelite culture: they are not coextensive nor equivalent. Although the text represents the culture of ancient Israel as male dominated from the time of Abraham, this presentation omits the perspective of half of the population-the women. By beginning at the point of realization that women did exist and were active in their culture, and placing aside the androcentric perspective of the text and its editors, the reality of women's place in ancient Israel may be determined. Through this new perspective, the women of the Torah will emerge as the archetypes of strength, leadership and spiritual insight to provide Jewish women of the present with female, ancestral role models and a foundation for their gender's heritage, a more complete understanding of the partial record of Jewish history recorded in the Torah. Those stories that appear as the exception of women's presence will unveil an exceptional presence. As Tamar Frankiel eloquently states in The Voice of Sarah, "the women we call our 'Mothers'-Sarah, Rivkah (Rebekah), Rachel, and Leah-are not merely mothers, any more than the 'Fathers'-Abraham, Isaac and Jacob-are merely fathers "(Frankiel 5).
women, Torah, Presence of women, Scriptural Archeology
Recommended CitationSibley, Vanessa Tess, "Scriptural Archeology: Excavating the Presence of Women in the Torah" (2001). Honors Theses. Paper 346.
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