For many people, engaging in modern biblical scholarship means ignoring all previous attempts to understand the Bible. The exegesis of the ages must be replaced with a methodical, scientific study. Recent trends, however, incorporate modern and ancient explanations, allowing the contemporary scholar to join the commentarial discussion with his new tools and perspectives.
Midrash is a broad genre but much of it consists of filling in the blanks of the biblical narrative, adding in a back story based, sometimes tenuously, on textual clues. Some find this frustrating because the midrashic tale seems a rabbinic invention. Others cherish the additions to biblical stories that are otherwise lacking depth of character and plot. But what do we do when, even after the insights of midrash and classical commentaries, we still see only a partial story?
Sandra E. Rapoport, in her recent book Biblical Seductions: Six Stories Retold Based on Talmud and Midrash, resolves this dilemma through a combination of literary analysis and creativity. Rapoport builds on midrash and classical commentaries to tell these biblical stories in full color, studying in detail the characters’ motivations and feelings at each step. And where the classics still leave unanswered questions, Rapoport fills in the holes through modern literary analysis and creative storytelling. Without overreaching (generally), she suggests possible motivations and emotional reactions of the characters that fit in with the overall plot development. The result is a sensitive, penetrating analysis of biblical stories often overlooked.
The value of this impressive volume is somewhat undermined by the provocative title and subject, necessitating hiding it from children. Rapoport does not fully explain why she selected for extensive study these six sexual stories — Lot’s daughters, Dinah’s rape, Yehudah & Tamar, David & Bassheva, Amnon & Tamar, and Rus & Boaz. It is true that schools generally skip these stories, thereby creating a need for someone to teach them, but Rapoport’s penetrating analysis can offer much to any biblical story. While the skeptical reader might suggest that salacious stories are more marketable in our prurient society, the author’s care with words and avoidance of innuendo undermine such an accusation. Clearly, Rapoport’s career as a sexual harassment attorney informs her choice. Perhaps there is also a feminist motive in the study of women who were unusually active or passive, heroes or victims.
Does Rapoport succeed in joining the conversation? She selects between and builds on midrashim and commentators in her process of literary reconstruction and analysis. In that sense, she succeeds in continuing age-old Jewish Bible study, adding a new perspective and recent methodologies. If anything, she may have joined too much. Despite her hesitant language full of disclaimers and suggestions, her creativity in filling holes in the story and suggesting plot details based on her understanding of the narrative seem overly bold. Similarly, her consistent attribution of guilt and flaws to the biblical characters seems to lack the reverence of the classical commentators, even those who adopt that general approach. And at least in one place, her misreading of and moralizing against Rashi was simply off-putting.*
Overall, though, despite my conservative bent in biblical commentary, I found Rapoport’s book refreshing. Her writing is compelling and her questions are always important points around which to analyze the text. The book is simply indispensable for anyone studying these biblical stories.
* Rashi (Gen. 34:1) states that Dinah is called the daughter of Leah because she “went out” into public like her mother. Rapoport (pp. 73-76, 91-92) reads this as blaming Dinah for her rape, an idea she calls “morally reprehensible” and against which she argues at length. Rashi did not intend to blame Dinah anymore than I would be blaming a mugging victim by pointing out that he should not have walked around the inner city while counting money in his wallet. Neither deserve the crime committed against them even if their under-cautious actions made them vulnerable. In explaining Rashi, R. Shmuel Goldin (Unlocking the Torah Text, Bereishit p. 198) writes: “Nothing can mitigate Shechem’s guilt over his abduction and assault of Dinah. By no means should we ever blame the victim of a violent crime. Nonetheless, the Torah reminds us that, at times, we contribute to our own downfall. Surrounded by a dangerous world, Dina should have been more careful. Her tragic misstep alerts us to the care that must be exercised in each era as we and our children relate to an often perilous environment.” If anyone, Rashi (Gen. 32:23) seems to blame Ya’akov and not Dinah. While I do not object to disagreeing with Rashi, even based on a misundertanding (it happens), I cringe at the phrase “morally reprehensible” when applied to a giant of our tradition. This was, however, an exception in the book and certainly not the rule.