All about Eve: Local scholar shines light on first woman
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All about Eve: Local scholar shines light on first woman

Has anyone seen Eve today?" Dr. Anne Lapidus Lerner asks her students. The Teaneck resident — author of "Eternally Eve: Images of Eve in the Hebrew Bible, Midrash, and Modern Jewish Poetry" (Brandeis University Press, $’6) — said she sees the first woman in the most unlikely places.

"During Thanksgiving I saw her on bottles of apple juice," she said. "I’ve also seen her on jars of hand cream and in ads for kitchen fixtures."

Eve has traditionally gotten a bad rap, said the author, alienating even the early feminists, who bought into the first mother’s reputation as a secondary, submissive, seductress. Lerner hopes her new book will help to change that.

"I was the least likely person to have written about Eve," she told The Jewish Standard. "I never had any interest in her." In fact, the assistant professor of Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary — as well as founding director of the school’s Jewish Women’s Studies Program and director of the Jewish Feminist Research Group — said she taught a course on women in the Bible, "and I started with Sarah."

Realizing that she didn’t know much about the first woman, Lerner began work on her new book, "starting backwards from the modern period." However, she said, "I realized I couldn’t explain things without a clear view of the biblical text. I had to go deep into it."

The author explained that the book relies on critical scholarship and insights provided by "rewriters, who narrate Eve’s story afresh, filling gaps, adding details, and contributing new perspectives to the study of ancient biblical texts. It’s legitimate to turn the lens of modern literature back on the Bible and initiate a conversation among three different slices of Jewish literature," she added. "Both midrash and modern poems shed light on the biblical text."

Lerner said she had to do some retranslating — "not because I think my English is more elegant than anyone else’s but because the texts are so well known, and people bring so much baggage with them. I wanted to scrape off all the accretions."

The words of the text are ambiguous, she said, permitting different meanings and interpretations. For example, noting that the word "adam" becomes a proper noun only briefly in the text, Lerner — pointing out that the biblical text is indeterminate in its use of the word, particularly as regards gender and number — treats it as a generic noun.

Lerner noted that "one small change in translation" — reading the word "tsela" as "side" rather than "rib" — can help change society’s view of woman. She pointed out that the word occurs 40 times in the Bible: ‘8 times it means "side," and 13 times it means "side room." Only in the creation story is it translated as "rib."

"I want to see a change in how this is taught," said Lerner, noting that a side is considerably more substantial than a rib, and it is created out of the same material used to shape the "adam." The author said she believes that changing this perception will ultimately affect the way women are viewed in society. "It will change our mental picture," she said.

Lerner also pointed out that Eve "is the dominant human character in the story." Not only doesn’t Adam speak very much, but Eve — considering what to do about the apple — "thinks it through" before taking action.

"I’ve always asked myself, what was Plan B?" said Lerner. "What if no one ate the apple? Would people have procreated? Would they have lived forever? In a way, it was a necessary step," she added, noting that no word meaning "curse" appears in Eve’s punishment. The land is cursed, as is the serpent, but there is no textual basis for associating the word with Eve, she said.

Lerner concluded that "there are many ways to read the biblical text, and the ‘traditional’ version is just one of them. But," she added, "you have to justify [that] interpretation. Narrrative is not prescriptive; it is only descriptive." She explained, for example, that while the laws regarding inheritance award property to the oldest brother, biblical stories almost always have the younger siblings coming out ahead.

"So if Eve was created later, she’s more likely to be important," she suggested, noting that nowhere in the Bible is there a mention of Eve’s death. "She is eternally with us," said the author, "shaping how we view men and women."

On Wednesday, Dr. Ruth Westheimer hosted a book party launching Lerner’s book at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. On Monday evening, Dec. 3, the author will discuss the book at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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