In Praise of Women’s Torah Scholarship

Dec 15, 2017Torah Commentary, Torah to Go

During a year, it sometimes seems as if the Bible and its familiar commentaries stay the same, while we change on levels both superficial and profound. Whether it is because of personal growth, shift in living situations, family and relationship status, work, milestone birthdays, and more, we are different people this year from who we were before. This is an amazing gift, because it allows us to bring new points-of-view to our texts, the same ones we study year after year after year.

While our traditional commentaries do remain the same, new scholarship emerges from every new generation. Now, for the first time in recorded history, there is a critical mass of female Jewish scholars looking at our sacred texts. These scholars are noticing things differently, and renewing our tradition with previously unseen and unimagined perspectives.

One example of this shift is the Biblical character of Serah bat Asher. Vayigash, amidst the swirl of family drama, is where we first meet her. She is merely a mysterious name on a list, with no part in the Biblical narrative. She is mentioned just three times in the Tanakh. Yet she was a legendary figure to our rabbinic sages. And a number of today’s scholars are bringing Serah bat Asher and the legends surrounding her to light.

According to Gen. 46:17, Serah bat Asher is one of the 70 descendants of Jacob who go down to Egypt from Canaan: “Asher’s sons: Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi, and Beriah, and their sister Serah.” She is also accounted for in the census of the Israelites that Moses takes in the desert (Num. 26:46), and appears for a third and final time in First Chronicles (1 Chron. 7:30).

According to Czech-born scholar Leila Bronner PhD, who took care to compile and comment on the many midrashic writings about Serah bat Asher, this legendary figure has tremendous “spiritual powers, [among which are] her power to guide people in distress.”

The first relates to this week’s Torah portion, which is missing a few details, for example, on how Joseph’s brothers might have gone about informing their father that Joseph was alive. The rabbis created two midrashim (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, and Sefer HaYashar) featuring Serah bat Asher, to fill in those gaps:

And . . . [the sons of Jacob] went along until they came nigh unto their houses, and they found Serah, the daughter of Asher, going forth to meet them, and the damsel…knew how to play upon the harp. . . . And they gave her a harp, saying, go now before our father [Jacob] and sit before him, and strike upon the harp, and speak these words. . . . She took the harp, and . . . she came and sat near Jacob. And she played and uttered in the sweetness of her words, “Joseph my uncle is living, and he ruleth throughout the land of Egypt, and is not dead.” And she continued to repeat these words, and Jacob heard…. And Jacob blessed Serah, “My daughter, may death never prevail over thee, for thou has revived my spirit.”

Another midrash (Exodus Rabbah) places Serah four hundred years later, authenticating for the people Moses’s identity as their redeemer:

The sign of [God’s] visitation which He communicated to them, for they had this as a tradition from Jacob, Jacob having handed down the secret to Joseph, and Joseph to his brothers, while Asher, the son of Jacob, had handed down the secret to his daughter Serah, who was still alive. This is what he told her: “Any redeemer that will come and say to my children: ‘I will surely visit you’ shall be regarded as a true deliverer.” When, therefore, Moses came and said these words, the people believed him at once.

Joseph asks his brothers in Gen. 50:25 to take his bones back to the land of Canaan. But when the time comes for the Israelites to leave Egypt, no one knows where they are. Serah bat Asher appears, on the eve of the Exodus, to guide Moses to find them. Three rabbinic sources tell the tale (Mekhilta of R. Ishmael, Tosefta, Tractate Sotah).

It is related that Serah, daughter of Asher, was a survivor of that generation. Moses went to her and asked, “Dost thou know where Joseph is buried?” She answered him, “The Egyptians made a metal coffin for him which they fixed in the river Nile so that its waters should be blessed.” Moses went and stood on the bank of the Nile and exclaimed, “Joseph, Joseph! The time has arrived which the Holy One, blessed be He swore, “I will deliver you, and the oath which thou didst impose upon the Israelite has reached [the time of fulfillment].” Immediately Joseph’s coffin floated [on the surface of the water] (Sotah 13a).

And centuries later, Serah is reputed to have been listening to the discussions of important religious matters by the rabbis in the house of study. When R. Johanan ben Zakkai seeks to describe the water of the sea as it parted, Serah, daughter of Asher, describes this most powerful redemptive moment for our people by saying: “I was there. The waters rising up like a wall for Israel were shining.…” (Pesikta de Rav Kahana).

And yet another midrash (Gen.Rab. 94:9; Eccles.Rab. 9:18) identifies Serah with a wise woman from the Bible who lived hundreds of years after the Exodus: the wise woman of Abel who saved that city from slaughter at the hand of Joab, King David’s commander-in-chief (2 Sam. 20).

The legend of Serah shows her as an important, perhaps prophetic witness and guide for the Jewish people. What became of Serah bat Asher? In the words of contemporary commentator Rabbi Laura Geller, “One legend reports that she died in a fire in a synagogue in Persia in the ninth century. Another legend is that she never actually died. Instead, she is like Elijah, wandering around the world, setting the record straight. A third legend is that a fiery chariot took her to heaven where she presides over a palace in which thousands of women who tended the old and sick in their lifetimes, as she cared for her grandfather Jacob, are privileged to study Torah with her as their teacher.”

Serah bat Asher lives still in every one of us. She is an example of what treasures can be found in our tradition if we go back to the texts with new vision and remain open to learning from all scholars. When we do so, we can hear the whispers of voices that were once barely audible, and which now connect us in new ways to our sacred inheritance.

Rabbi Beth Lieberman

With deep gratitude to contemporary scholars Leila Bronner PhD, Judith Baskin PhD, Rabbi Laura Geller, Tamar Kadari PhD, Paula Jacobs, Adriane Leveen PhD., Ilana Pardes PhD, and Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg PhD.

Written for and presented at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in Los Angeles, California.