Tamar, Bat-Yiftach and Judith. Hannah, Serakh bat Asher and Lilith.
These are the names of some of the most interesting women in the Jewish tradition. And yet, for many of us, these names aren’t nearly as familiar as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
There is the midrashic lore about Lilith, in some sources thought to have been the first wife of Adam, predating Eve, a woman with demon-like qualities and a “spiritual darkness.[i]” There is the devastating tale of Bat-Yiftach, the unnamed daughter of Jephthah, sacrificed by her own father after he makes an ill-conceived vow to the King of Ammon. In the Book of Judith—excluded from the Hebrew Bible but featuring a fascinating tale of a Jewish female heroine—we learn of Judith’s unwavering loyalty to God, her destiny to be forever unwed and her acts of extraordinary courage to save her people. Miriam was a prophetess and symbol of female strength in the Book of Exodus but was then exiled for leprosy, her service to God and her people rendered irrelevant. Hannah, one of the earliest stories of infertility, was barren and then blessed with children. Ruth and Naomi were ancient models of female solidarity. Deborah was a righteous judge and prophetess, and Yael fulfilled Deborah’s prophesy and is thus listed in the Book of Judges as yet another Jewish female heroine.
Many are the accounts of Jewish female biblical characters that struggled, took risks and made sacrifices for their families and their people. And yet, for so many Jews, these stories aren’t accessed and discussed, held up as mirrors to the struggles we face today, or used to help modern Jews process ancient dilemmas.
Alicia Jo Rabins is trying to change all that. “The outside nature of these characters, and the Torah’s respect for these characters makes for a powerful combination,” Rabins remarks when discussing her immersion into the narratives. “There is something very relatable about these stories. We think that our problems today are really modern problems, but at the root, they’re age-old, universal problems.”
Rabins is speaking both explicitly—about the modern-day problems of women’s rights, infertility, failed marriage, illness and estrangement—and implicitly, about what it means to be human, and how these stories can soften the blow of our journey down life’s path. “I’m particularly interested in how the present moment intersects with ancient traditions and wisdom,” she explains. “Where the most mundane aspects of daily life touch the more transcendent and spiritual aspects, and how they’re all related and linked.”
It is precisely this sort of link—how the spiritual informs the mundane, and vice versa—that inspires Rabins’ latest project, a curriculum titled “The Complicated Lives of Biblical Women.” Supported by a grant from The Covenant Foundation, her curriculum will complement a collection of songs Rabins has written, composed and recorded with her band, Girls in Trouble. On the surface, the songs and lessons are about these women in the Torah. But Rabins’ deeper focus is on “the emotional connection we can make to our foundational stories, and how that connection functions differently than other forms of text study.” We know the power texts have to move us, unite us, inspire us, and keep us connected to tradition. But unless the texts are continuously re-imagined, they can’t provide the intellectual, cultural and emotional framework for a changing community.
This is where Rabins’ work comes in. A musician, a poet, a performer and a Torah scholar, Rabins is hesitant to define herself as one any more than another. “I feel like I’m essentially all of those things, and they’re all in flux,” she says. The common denominator, however, is art. All of Rabins’ proverbial “hats” are artistic ones, and in this way, she is performing her own reinvention of the sacred. “Art meets us where we are,” she explains. “Using visual art and music and literature, contextualizing midrash as a Jewish art form and looking at the stories of these women is a powerful way to reach those adults who grew up with a sense of not being able to identify with Torah values.”
Part of the challenge for many educators who seek to convey such values to their students is that, as Rabins puts it, so many of us have only a “pediatric” understanding of Judaism. “For many adults, our Jewish education ended in our teens,” Rabins explains. “And we don’t necessarily encounter stories like Tamar’s.” During the Bar and Bat Mitzvah lessons she teaches through her company Personal Torah, Rabins has worked with young Jewish teens faced with challenging portions like that of the Sotah, the accused adulteress from the Book of Numbers. She thus has experienced firsthand the value of introducing budding adults to some of the lesser known texts. In the liner notes to her song “Secrets/You’re Always Watching,” from Volume I of Girls in Trouble, Rabins writes, “I’ve taught three Bat Mitzvah students who have been assigned this portion. It’s been humbling and poignant to experience this story with twelve-year-old girls being brought into their tradition. I was thinking of each of them when I wrote this song.”
Just as toddlers learning the alphabet are more apt to recall letters if they learn a song about them, so, too, can adults more readily understand and accept certain lessons of our tradition if they are presented in an accessible way. “Part of the power of using the arts is that text can be hard to access or require more guidance, but anyone can look at a painting of Judith [or listen to a song about her] and experience its impact… regardless of age,” Rabins asserts. “I think part of my goal for this curriculum—which will include both music and art—is that it be engaging for a wide range of learners. The curriculum will be scalable, geared toward teens through adults, but in the right hands, it could even be used for younger ages.”
Rabins’ curriculum is intended to be trans-denominational. Rather than focus on God, the lessons will look at the biblical stories from a woman’s point of view, so that God becomes another character in the story. The first two Girls in Trouble records contain ten songs each, and the curriculum will have a section focusing on each. In identifying new biblical women to profile, Rabins says she tries to “locate moments that feel sensitive and interesting, and find something that I can legitimately connect to.”Her third album, currently being recorded, will include songs about Queen Vashti, the daughters of Tzelofchad, Hagar, Noah’s wife and others. Indeed, the stories of each of those legendary women are rich enough to fill hundreds of albums and lesson plans.
Despite the scope of her endeavor, Rabins remains committed to her inspiration for the project. “I am someone who loves these texts,” she says, “and I want to bring that out in my teaching and curriculum writing. I want to use these texts to help us feel less alone, to energize us, to look at these characters not as representative of despair and darkness, but rather, with companionship and love.”
For some, it might be a stretch to feel love for a biblical character. And yet, Rabin’s lyrics reflect her own affection and empathy for these women. In listening to her songs, one can understand how stories at once ancient and perhaps inaccessible can be reinvented to draw one in and make one feel connected.
In her song “Emeralds and Microscopes,” which imagines Rebecca singing to Sarah, Rabins writes:
“You are welcome to visit me
I live where you used to be.
I will leave the door unlocked
Come inside and let me say your name.”
It is this process of listening to and speaking the names of these women which roots one deeply in tradition, adding layers of meaning to a text that might otherwise have been overlooked or left unexplored. Rabins’ art invites us to visit and revisit these stories, to hear them and sing them and muse on them, to see these women as trusted guides, as beloved friends, and to let them teach us and comfort us, as we go on our way.