When I was in my late teens, I discovered midrash: the Jewish exegetical process by which commentators weave creative and additive interpretations into the sacred text. Midrash comes from the word “to ask,” “to seek,” or “to divine.” For example, the tale in which a well follows the prophetess Miriam through the wilderness is an ancient midrash. The story in which God stops the angels from singing as the Egyptians drown in the Sea of Reeds is a midrash. Each of these stories derives from a particular close reading of text, whether a Torah text or a verse elsewhere in the Bible. Each of them allows a new generation to add its own perspectives to the tradition.
Contemporary feminists, and many other contemporary artists, writers, and exegetes, have used a modern form of midrash to add liberatory perspectives to Jewish tradition and to biblical lore. From Miriam to Vashti, female biblical characters shine in the creative interpretations of feminist midrashists. Judith Plaskow’s “The Coming of Lilith” made a huge impact on the reading of the story of Eve and the legend of Lilith. Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent changed the conversation on Dinah forever. Alicia Ostriker, Norma Rosen, Veronica Golos, and many others have joined in this creative play which highlights marginalized voices within the text. Wilda Gafney has made contributions to a Christian and womanist form of midrash. Voices like Andrew Ramer and Joy Ladin have invited us to see queer and trans themes in the text. And of course many others, from poet Yehuda Amichai to bibliodramatist Peter Pitzele, have added to this rich tapestry.
I’ve been writing and teaching midrash since I was in my twenties. I studied both ancient and modern midrash in rabbinical school. My own book, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women (2001), as well as my book of poems The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries (2016), were my contribution to the field of contemporary midrash. I also served as the editor of Living Text: The Journal of Contemporary MIdrash for a few years. Now, I teach ancient midrash as well as contemporary midrash at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic rabbinical and cantorial seminary in Yonkers. My research, as part of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, into women’s forms of spiritual leadership in biblical Israel is based in textual evidence and archeology, yet is also is inspired by the midrashic process and the way that process has given marginalized characters a voice.
Last week, I had the privilege of teaching a week-long writing seminar at the Academy for Jewish Religion called “Sweet Singer of Israel: King David and a Life in the World.” During this seminar, we took a whirlwind tour of biblical texts about King David, from his anointing as a shepherd boy to his rise to kingship to his son’s rebellion against him in his old age. Every few chapters, we wrote midrash.
My students wrote pieces in the voices of Michal (daughter of Saul and David’s wife), Jonathan (David’s friend and maybe lover), Bathsheba, David’s son Absalom, and others. Throughout the stories, we were forced to confront the text’s portrayal of David as a man who commits and enables violence, particularly violence toward women. Reading these texts in today’s environment, we couldn’t help but see in David a hint of many problematic men occupying the national stage. So we wrote as other characters, to offer their perspectives, their versions of the sacred. As we did so, we felt the multiplicity and complexity of the biblical voice and our own voices.
Throughout our five-day workshop, one character continued to demand my attention. Michal, younger daughter of Saul, falls in love with David after his meteoric rise to fame. She is, in fact, the only woman the Bible depicts as falling in love (outside the Song of Songs). When Saul seeks to kill David, Michal saves her new husband by letting him out a window. She then hides her terafim (household deities of some kind) in his bed, with goat hair on top, so Saul’s soldiers will think David is sick in bed. In spite of her loyalty, David abandons Michal. She’s given to another husband, Paltiel. When David becomes king, he demands Michal back, and her new husband Paltiel follows her, weeping, as she returns to her first husband.
Not long afterward, when Michal sees David whirling and leaping in scant clothing before the Holy Ark, she chastises him: “Didn’t the king of Israel do himself honor today, exposing himself in the sight of serving-women?” (II Sam. 6:20) David in turn insults her and her father’s house, “and Michal daughter of Saul had no child until the day of her death.” (II Sam. 6:23) Whether David refuses to have sex with her, or she refuses him, or whether God punishes her with infertility, is unclear. What we know is that the possibility that David and Michal will produce a united royal line is cut off.
As my students wrote pieces about Michal’s love and/or hatred for David, her bravery, her romanticism, her realism, her disappointment, her mores, and her political savvy, I saw the scenes of her life in a new way. Like her ancestress Rachel, Michal is a keeper of terafim, the ancestors or spirits of her home. In this sense she reminds me of the early women of Israel who kept the sacred things of their home, and whose religious objects (offering stands, statues, etc.) have been excavated from many sites in the region. Ursula LeGuin’s novel Lavinia depicts an early Roman king’s daughter as keeper of the tribe’s spirit. I wonder if Michal, as daughter of Saul, in some way might have served this role as well (scholar Susan Ackerman has done considerable research into whether queen mothers of Judah played a sacred role, maybe daughters did too).
Michal is also a “keeper” of the Holy Ark, in the sense that she complains about what she regards as sacrilegious behavior in its presence. This complaint may stem from her anger at David for taking her from her husband, or even from her knowledge that David’s eros is seducing the crowd just as it once seduced her. As Rabbi Sandy Horowitz wrote in the workshop: “Of course the women are fawning all over him, smiling and looking to get his attention. Oh, he does love that.” Another participant, Gerry Ginsburg, wrote: “Those are holy vestments he is turning into tools for a peep show!” Steven Goldstein wrote: “Fraud, exposed at last—whirling like your ego!” These voices offer a perspective on Michal that treats her not as an insubordinate woman but as one speaking truth to power. Michal may even be angry that David is bringing the Ark to Jerusalem, thereby centralizing Israelite religion and directing pilgrimage practice toward the capital, with all the economic and political benefits of that re-direction. Even though I’m a fan of ecstatic dance, Michal’s outrage at David’s immodesty speaks to me, now that I understand her as a keeper of sacred things.
In my current reading of the David stories, I am choosing to relate to Michal as a manifestation of a decentralized tradition comfortable with household spirits and uncomfortable with lavish (and highly political) displays of centralized religion. This Michal sits by my side as a knowing critic of David and his court—intimate with the gifts and also the weaknesses of the male leaders with whom she spars.
My study and creative writing with my students has left me with a growing sense of Michal as my ancestor: a woman engaged with ritual objects and ceremonies, who was also passionately engaged with the people and events of her day. My students’ readings of the vicissitudes of Michal’s life invite me to inquire more deeply of my own passions and my own complex, political, and intimate relationship to sacred things.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org) and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org). She is the author of essays, poems, rituals and stories, and of seven books including Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess (with Taya Shere, 2015), and the new volume of poetry The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries (2016).