Empowerment through religion and art

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Empowerment through religion and art

The feminist midrash of Alicia Ostriker

by Heidi Thorsen on Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 8:47am

Religious texts and traditions have been used to motivate social change or to justify a belief-based status quo — based on how these texts have been interpreted.  According to feminist poet and critic Alicia Ostriker, interpretation also has the power to redeem religious texts, even those with complex histories of empowerment and oppression. Through her creative writing, a modern manifestation of the midrashic tradition, Ostriker advocates for the redemptive potential of religious text.

The reinterpretation of Biblical texts

Midrash is essentially a mode of Biblical commentary.  The term is most commonly used today in reference to re-tellings of Biblical stories that explore their meanings to contemporary audiences.  Countless examples of centuries-old Biblical midrashim have emerged from within the Jewish tradition, some of it bundled into written collections so prevalent that they blend with, and sometimes even eclipse, the original stories. Most historical midrashim were written by male authorities.

So how does a feminist poet reinterpret religious texts? Ostriker has explored this question in theory and practice from her first book of creative essay and poems on Biblical subjects (The Nakedness of the Fathers, 1994), to the workshops she currently offers on writing poetry as midrash.  Ostriker’s work demonstrates how confronting Biblical texts with a consciousness of personal autobiography and gender identity can breathe new life into ancient writing.  Building on the conventional imagery of Torah, the first five books of the Bible, as a tree of life, Ostriker insists that “a tree is alive when it keeps growing.”  Ostriker’s progressive persona does not change the core of these texts, the roots and the trunk, but rather brings new vitality to limbs and leaves of the Bible’s contemporary relevance.  For Ostriker, interpretation is an active and contemporary action, not a passive understanding.

Feminism and revolutionary acts

Ostriker suggests that the contemporary relevance of midrash is twofold: to revolutionize the way religious communities view women, and to redeem the status of religion in a political climate burdened by religious conflicts and perceived contradictions.

According to Ostriker, midrash has the power to introduce feminist interpretations of the Bible. Further, she states that the act of women writing midrash is itself an act of feminism.

Writing on Biblical subjects previously restricted to men is itself a political act, an endeavor that increasing numbers of women are joining. She speculates that about 80 percent of midrashim written in the 21st century has been written by women in America.

More broadly, Ostriker assesses the current status of creative Biblical reinterpretation through a paradox.  On one hand Ostriker related how in her experience only a very small number of Americans are aware of what midrash is.  Contemporary Americans are much more familiar with its source text, the Bible. Many would argue that these original texts carry connotations of violence, exclusionism, and suppression. In this traditional view, religious interpretations can be seen as a source of tension between feminism and religious belief.

On the other hand, Ostriker identifies a worldwide revival of midrash writing since the second world war, a movement with which she herself identifies.  “After World War II and the Holocaust we have to review everything,” Ostriker posits.  This attitude of questioning extends to issues of violence, racism, and also gender.

Ostriker finds comfort in the ancient rabbinic affirmation, “there is always another interpretation.”  There is always another interpretation to be found in stories of the Bible; there is always another interpretation to be advocated of how gender should be defined, recognized, and validated in society.  Religion does not have to be an agent of oppression.  Through new and creative interpretations, it can be a source for empowerment.


The Nakedness of FathersAlicia Suskin Ostriker is a feminist poet, critic and scholar. She is the author of 12 volumes of poetry, a National Book Award finalist, and winner of numerous literary awards. She has also published three books on the Bible, including The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions.  Ostriker is Professor Emerita at Rutgers University. Her talk was organized by the Taube Center for Jewish Studies as part of the winter-quarter events organized for Ms. at 40 and the Future of Feminism.

Heidi Thorsen is an undergraduate in the English Department and a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team.

Responses to Empowerment through religion and art

Sue Reinhold's picture
20 March, 2012 Sue Reinhold (not verified)

Great article; compelling work! Matches the point of my favorite bumper sticker: 'Jews for Exegesis.' Noted Torah and midrashic interpreter Dr. Avivah Zornberg will be in the Bay Area in April for a series of lectures which I highly recommend - her books and teaching are renowned on these points - she has a schedule of lectures in the Bay Area in April.