Walking in Torah through Feminist Eyes: Part III, Questions for Guided Study

In this portion where Rachel steals the Teraphim.

1. Look at the biblical rendition of this Torah portion. Did the sisters really want to leave their ancestral home? Does the text show them as we might imagine, purchased as brides, being torn from their roots, powerless under patriarchy? Or does it show them unified in desiring to go? Was there a bias in your expectation? What kinds of power are used in the text? Do both genders have access to all forms of power? What is it that the sisters expect to get out of their departure a) in the original biblical text and b) in this version of the narrative? Does this feel like an authentic projection? What alternatives can you imagine?

2. Entry level feminism first brought great, cathartic anger to text analysis. What do you find in the original text that makes you angry? Is that anger echoed in the reframed narrative? Do the authors' projections of feelings and actions for any of the characters make you angry? What makes you proud in regard to these texts?

3. This narrative was written by two heterosexual women. A scenario that was developed by Rabbi Goldie Milgram with Rabbi Julie Greenberg was for Rachel or Leah to have been in lesbian relationship with one of their respective handmaidens, and so it could have been the sisters who conspired together to trick Laban into deceiving Jacob into marrying both women so that one of them would not have to be parted from her lover when the household would be split up. How do you feel about this alternative? Can you imagine this also becoming accepted as sacred text commentary? What does your reaction say about yourself? About our culture?

4. Whose voices are missing in the text? The handmaidens Bilhah and Zilpah? Those of the next generation, such as Dinah? Who do you imagine was the mother of Rachel and Leah? Did they have the same mother? Were they born to concubines of Laban? What happened to their mother? How are they shaped by the absence of a mother? Is their mother dead or simply unrepresented by the text? How do you feel about her absence? What would she have said about Jacob's plan and her daughters' acquiescence?

5. Is it feminist, or perhaps something new, to experience the text with a post- patriarchal consciousness? Today we look at relationships from the experience of each character, as well as in the context of family systems theories. What questions can we generate to better understand the men's experiences? What was it like to be Laban and lose his daughters without warning? How did his sons feel at their sisters' leaving? What was it like for the grandchildren to leave their grandfather behind? Was economic exploitation of Jacob Laban's only motivation for holding onto his daughters? What was the role of those daughters in Laban's life? How did Jacob regard his role in Laban's household? What were his hopes, dreams and schemes for the future? Are these and other questions like them that you might generate legitimate parts of a feminist analysis? Does it anger you to focus also on the men? Is there value in making room for this approach in our work? How does this line of gender inquiry differ from one that would seek to reinforce the value of patriarchy?

6. The interpretive inclinations of the medieval commentators are an important resource for traditional approaches to text analysis. Committed to staying in creative dialogue with their rabbinic ancestors the authors of our reframed narrative studied those commentaries and allowed themselves to be influenced by them in redesigning the text. Summaries of those commentaries follow in the appendix. How did they influence the authors? What would you have done with the views of these medieval men?

a. Rashi tells us that Rachel took the "teraphim" to prevent her father from worshiping idols. He derives this from Laban's calling them "his gods" in the biblical text.

b. Rabbi lbn Ezra, another medieval commentator, points out a problem with Rashi's translation of the term as "idols." "Why would she hold onto idols?" he asks, would not Rachel have destroyed them immediately?

c. Another medieval commentator, Ramban, becomes even more concerned - for he reads ahead in the Torah and notices that King David's wife Michal is said to place "teraphim" into David's bed as a decoy to save his life. Could this mean there were idols in King David's house?

Ramban is very concerned with defending Rachel's Israelite monotheism," for him there can be no idols in the spirituality of our foremothers. He suggests that the "teraphim" must have been used either to tell time or as tools to predict the future. To the medieval Jew astrology was seen as an important science. They could readily envision the "teraphim" as tools to determine the status of the stars, and thus predict the future. For him, by taking them Rachel was acting the part of the good wife, defending her husband by preventing Laban from predicting the precise time of Jacob's departure.

d. Another medieval Jewish commentator, known by the acronym Radak suggests that Rachel would use the teraphim to obtain koach elyoni. Koach elyoni, translates as "divine power" or "power from above".

6. Finally, the authors take their own liberties with the literal text, imagining a sexual relationship between Laban and his daughters, suggesting that the teraphim actually were acquired by Laban from his wife, and most significantly expanding the possible meanings of the phrase b'derech nashim, "in the way of women" usually considered to be menstruation and attributed to the purity laws, here taken as pregnancy and/or miscarriage. Does this expand the text to make more room for you? Are these possibilities too heretical and unkind to these spiritual ancestors, or humanizing and helpful in awakening ourselves to the text? What new possibilities do you see?

We hope this has been a helpful study for you. This 3-part series was developed with Rabbi Judy Kummer