The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach
Did Sarah share her husband’s devotion to God, or was she just a secondary figure along for the ride? What motivated Esther to finally take charge and save the day in Shushan? What do traditional rabbinic scholars think of surprising heroines such as Rachav, Devorah, Yael, and others?
In this course with Mrs. Sarah Rudolph we will engage in close study of the Bible’s accounts of these and other women, developing our own insights while examining the insights of a range of classical commentaries spanning the full history of Jewish Bible study and interpretation. Some of these women are famous; some less so. Some are heroic; some perhaps not so heroic. Some are beautiful; all are bold, often taking action in unexpected ways. Together, we will develop our appreciation of the depth and complexity of these women and their contributions.
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 1
Rachav the Zonah: In our first session, we will examine the story of Rachav, the “bold and beautiful” woman in Jericho who saved the lives of two Jewish spies and was saved in return, along with her family, when the Jews captured her city. What sort of woman was Rachav, and what motivated her good deed? Are there broader lessons to derive from the story of this unlikely heroine?
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 2
In our second session, we will move from the relatively obscure Rachav to the much more well-known Sarah, the first of the Matriarchs. We will examine the text at the beginning of her story, utilizing midrashic traditions and selected commentaries to add insight between the lines and discover clues to Sarah’s personality and relationships – her relationship to G-d, her relationship to her husband, and permeating it all, her relationship to the mission G-d entrusted to her husband.
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 3
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 4
Having backtracked from Rachav (in the time of Joshua) to Sarah, we will now jump way ahead in time to Devorah, the prophetess and judge. What sort of person was she, and what sort of leader? What can her interactions with Barak tell us about their relationship and about her, and what does she herself have to say about her leadership? From Devorah, we will segue to talk about Yael, of tent-peg-wielding fame, next week. Our discussions of both of these women will consider not only their personal character traits and stories, but how they may relate to a broader conception of “women in tents” as introduced through our study of Sarah.
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 5
After examining Devorah’s unique personality and qualifications that led to her becoming a respected religious leader, it still remains for us to consider the details of how she describes herself in that role. We will then move on to the story within the story: the account of how a woman named Yael saved the day by driving a tent peg through the skull of the enemy general. What led Yael to take this step? What does her approach tell us about her, and what might others’ portrayals of her suggest about women in general?
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 6
Having analyzed the details of Yael’s story last week, we will complete our discussion of her character by considering how her behavior relates to the “women in tents” motif. We will then move on to look at Esther, who acted (or didn’t) in a much larger “tent”: the palace of King Achashverosh. What can we uncover about Esther’s personality, at various points in the story? How, when, and why did she change?
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 7
We began our study of Esther last week by talking about Vashti, noting two major qualities of hers that stand out in Rabbinic portrayals of her character: (1) antagonism to Jewish observance, and (2) promiscuity. In contrast, Esther is viewed as (1) devoted to observance, even as she hid her Jewish identity, and (2) modesty. However, our study of the verses – and even careful attention to the Rabbinic interpretations – led to the conclusion the text itself tells us little about her character and even midrashic descriptions tend to the vague; mostly, we hear about her in terms of others, as she “does whatever Mordechai says” and passively accepts whatever is given to her at the harem. It remains for us to examine the Rabbinic basis for describing Esther as modest, and to see how this passive modesty evolves as the story continues. By the end, we will meet a new Esther, who is anything but passive! Time-permitting, we may have a word to say about Batsheva as well, by request, before moving on to Ruth in our final session together.
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 8
Last week, we saw how Esther flips 180 degrees: where she once showed a childlike obedience to Mordechai, she suddenly grows up and into her role as a bold (and maybe beautiful) woman. Esther takes charge of the crisis, including giving instructions to Mordechai, and succeeds in defeating Haman. This week, we will complete our study of Esther with one fnal source that emphasizes just how far she has come, and then move on to Ruth. Through a careful study of the text of Megillat Rut, we will consider whether she deserves her reputation as a strong, dedicated convert – or whether, perhaps, she actually deserves a vastly different (but no less positive) reputation.
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 9
In this first meeting of our fall session, we will begin with a brief review of the women and major concepts discussed during the summer. (Those women were: Rachav, Sarah, Devorah and Yael, Esther, and Rut.) We will then introduce Chana as our first subject for this session, and begin to get to know the major figures in her family life: her husband, Elkana; and Elkana’s other wife, Penina. What can we uncover about the personalities and motivations of each of these characters, and how might these relationships have played a role in leading to Chana’s momentous prayer for a child?
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 10
Last week, we just began to introduce ourselves to Chana’s husband, Elkana. In this week’s session, we will get to know him a little better, and also his other wife, Penina – and of course, Chana herself. What motivates each of these characters? What can we uncover about Chana in particular: her personality, and the ways in which she does and does not serve as a role model for the rest of us?
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 11
We have discussed Chana’s intense longing for a child as her unique struggle. After further exploring how midrashic traditions portray the essence of that longing, we will go on to consider: (1) her surprising approach (according to midrashic tradition) to persuading G-d to grant her heart’s desire; (2) what elements of her behavior are viewed by Rabbinic tradition as prescriptive for others; and (3) the aftermath of her prayer – how her emotions shift and her life changes. Following our conclusion of Chana’s story, we will go back in time to a very different (or not so different?) character: Rivka. We will begin to consider how the Torah introduces us to Rivka and her suitability for the role she will play in building G-d’s nation.
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 12
We began to meet Rivka last week – or rather, to lay the groundwork for meeting the woman who would possess every sought-after quality to continue Avraham’s legacy alongside Yitzchak. In this week’s class, we will continue to check her against our list, finally bringing her into Sarah’s tent… at which point she will begin to live her own life in that role, in her own way. What way will that be? What is Rivka really like?
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 13
We met Rivka as the perfect candidate to become the second-generation Jewish Matriarch, as she demonstrated qualities necessary both for that historic national role and, perhaps, for relating to her intended husband. In fact, she stepped into her late mother-in-law’s shoes (or more precisely, tent) perfectly. In today’s class, we will examine how Rivka goes about life in her new position, and whether she may have in fact brought some elements of her upbringing into her marriage. Time permitting, we will then jump centuries ahead to meet “Avigayil, the wife of Naval” – and one of King David’s wives. We will consider the information the Navi presents in introducing her, before examining the story to see how she demonstrates qualities of her unique character as well as some characteristics surprisingly typical of women in the Bible.
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 14
In this class, we will examine the story and character of Avigayi – “wife of Naval,” and later, “wife of David.” What qualities does it take to stand up to an anointed king on the warpath, and to talk him down? How does Avigayil demonstrate those qualities, and how does she end up becoming David’s wife? As always, we will consider these questions via a careful reading of the Biblical text, along with commentaries and midrashic traditions. Please note: “Handout 1” has been modified since it was posted last week; the new version is included here.
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 15
After reading most of the narrative last week, today’s discussion of Avigayil will focus largely on the midrashic details offered by the Talmud. How do these details inform our picture of Avigayil as she has been understood through centuries of Jewish tradition? We will also consider how her marriage to Naval defines her even – or especially – after she is married to David.
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 16
Who was Batsheva? It is easy to think of the relationship between David and Batsheva as David’s story. The debate about his behavior, as G-d’s favored king, with regard to this married (?) woman and her husband has been going on for centuries. However, it is a mistake to think of any woman in the Bible as simply a passive “prop” to someone else’s story, and Batsheva is no exception. Though the textual, midrashic, and exegetical material is leaner than with most of the women we have studied, we will see there is much to uncover and consider in exploring Batsheva’s character and story on her terms.
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 17
Our last class of the session! We talked last week about the narrative of Batsheva’s first encounter with David and raised questions about how active she may or may not have been in that encounter, and why. In this class, we will examine some other possible factors behind their relationship, and consider the degree to which Batsheva does become very active, in the text as well as in midrashic traditions, and in what context she focuses those energies. In particular, we will consider her influence on her son, the next king of Israel – not politically, but simply as his mother. Stay tuned for information about next semester, when we will continue our studies by looking at several sisters in the Bible: Rachel, Leah, and Miriam. Please note dates for that course, as it will not run for the full semester.
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 18
Welcome (back)! In our first class this semester, we will begin to explore the stories of Rachel and Leah, sisters and sister-wives. How were they similar or different from each other? What led Yaakov to fall in love with Rachel, and what does that mean for his relationship with Leah? Can we derive clues as to the sisters’ characters based on the little information in the text?
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 19
We began last week to explore the story of Rachel and Leah, searching the text for clues to their unique characters. So far, we have seen that they are presented in tandem, both in terms of their roles as “builders” of the Jewish nation (alluded to in midrashic interpretations, though not explicit in the text of the Torah) and in terms of their personalities as potential wives for Yaakov. In this class, we will begin to gain further insight into those personalities, as we examine the physical descriptions of each for insight into characterization, and see how they each handle their father’s decision to trick Yaakov into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. As children enter the picture, we will find even further clues as to what sets the sisters apart from each other and makes each a unique contributor to the future Jewish nation. **Please note that the handout contains the Name of G-d and, if printed, should be treated with respect.
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 20
Last week, we saw some of the midrashic texts that ascribe particular character traits to each sister: “modesty” (which we understood as the ability to keep selectively silent) for Rachel, and [prayers for] mercy for Leah. We will begin this week’s session by comparing those texts to another passage that names a trait practiced by each sister. As we continue with the narrative, we will see how some of these traits are reflected in each sister’s reactions to having (or not having) children. We will also begin to see the kinds of actions each of these bold and (possibly) beautiful women take in furthering their dreams.
The Bold and the Beautiful: A Study of Women in Tanach: Lesson 21
In last week’s class, we began to build a picture of Leah and Rachel in which the two sisters contrasted in their relationship and percception of G-d. Leah is the one who prays, who recognizes and appreciates, who does not feel her successes are matters of entitledment but that evertyhing she has is drectly because of hashgacha and G-d’s abundant kindness in particular. This character comes out in particular through the naming of Leah’s first four children. Rachel, on the other hand, does not immediately attribute anything about her maternal prospects to G-d, at least not explicitly in the text, and we will see that when she does begin to have children and to recognize G-d’s role in their births, it is in a different manner than Leah’s. However, we will also go on to see the famous story of the dudaim, where the sisters talk to each other directly and perhaps begin to balance out their unique character traits with some elements learned from the other.
Sarah Rudolph is a freelance Jewish educator, writer, and editor. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, OU Life, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. She is Editor-At-Large, Deracheha: womenandmitzvot.org. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world.