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‘The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views’

Rabbi Dr David J. Zucker of North West Surrey Synagogue introduces his new book, co-written with Moshe Reiss.

The Matriarchs Of GenesisA people’s self-understanding is fashioned on its heroes and heroines. In our prayers we regularly refer to the best known of the Matriarchs of Genesis, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel. The narratives featuring these women (as well as the other three Matriarchs, Bilhah and Zilpah, who were married to Jacob, and Hagar who was Abraham’s second wife) are all found in the book of Genesis. Time and again, the first four of these women –as well as Hagar – are featured as powerful characters whose strong personalities influence the lives of their husbands or others, who often confer with them. At one point the Bible records that God instructs Abraham to listen specifically to the words of Sarah (Gen 21:12). These women are exceptional. They are special because we know their names, and often we hear their voices and learn what they do, even if not as frequently as we in a modern and more equal age might wish. Seeking to know more about these women is difficult because one is ‘exploring the terrain of silence.’ These ‘women are not absent, but they are cast in stories told by men’ (Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai).

‘The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views’ features chapters devoted to seven women: Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, and Bilhah and Zilpah. Each chapter is divided into five sections: how the Matriarch is presented in the Genesis, Early extra-Biblical literature, rabbinic literature, contemporary scholarship, and feminist thought. The early extra-Biblical literature (primarily from the Pseudepigrapha) is Jewish writing from the Second Temple period, literature that were considered sacred texts, yet they were not incorporated into the current Jewish Bible. Examples are the books of Jubilees and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Examples of rabbinic literature are culled from various Midrash collections and from the Talmud, as well as other rabbinic writings. Next come perceptions of contemporary scholarship, including Jewish and non-Jewish scholars, both men and women, writing on the book of Genesis in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Finally, the fifth and final section presents the perspective of feminist scholars who bring additional insights to the material at hand. Some women, right across the theological spectrum from liberal to conservative, would claim the term ‘feminist’ for themselves while others would not. Feminism is not a matter of gender identity, for there are both male and female feminists. Feminism is both a body of theory and a mode of viewing the world that places significance on the experiences of women, as well as a political movement that seeks to end sexism. Whether a given source appears in the ‘Contemporary Scholarship’ section or the ‘Feminist Thought’ section is sometimes an arbitrary, subjective choice. What distinguishes feminist from non-feminist scholarship is the primary concern for women as the major subject of analysis, as well as women’s experiences and how they are represented.

In the words of Professor Hélène Dallaire, Professor of Old Testament, Denver Seminary, ‘The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views’ opens ‘a window into the lives of the Matriarchs. They give these esteemed women a voice and present them as dynamic, emotional and articulate individuals whose family relationships were complex and to a certain extent, unpredictable. Through their careful research in Biblical and extra-Biblical literature, Zucker and Reiss bring the Matriarchs to life, expose their relentless emotional struggles and give them the acclaim they most certainly deserve. A fascinating read for anyone interested in Biblical women!’

Dr. Dina Ripsman Eylon, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal explains that ‘Even in a time when gender-related scholarship is growing exponentially, the recent ‘The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views’ is an invaluable contribution. The authors… explore the narratives of seven Biblical women: Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah. These narratives are examined from five unique perspectives, which offer thought-provoking analysis and introspection. I highly recommend this volume as a learning tool for students and laypersons.’

Rabbi Dr. Deborah Kahn-Harris, Principal, Leo Baeck College, describes the book as ‘an excellent primer… well researched and designed.’

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