Midrash. This was the meandering Sunday morning discussion topic that began in the desert with Moses and ended with a collective witness to the justice work of feminism. Most hadn’t before heard of midrash, the Jewish approach to sacred texts that calls for imagination, what-ifs, multiple endings, and no perfect bow tied at the end. Nevertheless, as we applied this interpretive tool to the familiar story of Moses, the account took on a different hue.
While some were seated around a table and others appeared through computer screens, individual readers of a text became a community of questioners. Slowly but surely, observations not seen before percolated to the surface. Unleashed imaginations began to do the thing they were made to do: letters on the page became nimble and flexible. Curiosity, too, pointed to blank space, interrogating the teller of tales: why didn’t you say more?
Midrash moved into our context, too, asking are we really any different from Moses? Don’t we also wrestle with the sins of patriarchy? Answers took the form of witnessing.
One person shared how she was one of the first female flight attendants—“stewardess,” at the time—and this meant she had to sign a second employment contract, one specified only for women. In it, she agreed, among other things, that she wouldn’t gain more weight than allowed (based on her weight at the time she signed), that she would no longer be employable after the age of 32, and that she would wear a girdle (yes, there were girdle checks!). As a result, she became a leader in airline unions, convinced that collective power was necessary to change the sexist policies with which she had to endure.
Someone else described how she learned from a male colleague, who was younger, less-experienced, and newer to the university than she, that he made more money. She took this information to her manager, confident that this inequity would be remedied. Instead, her manager responded that, of course, his salary was higher. He had a wife and children to support, after all. She wasted no time filing a lawsuit in order to receive the pay she was due and shortly thereafter, found a different job.
I, too, leaned in, sharing about teaching at an evangelical university when I was the only woman in a large department of ten men. It wasn’t long before I was labeled as a “feminazi.” The problems I presented were endless: I was a woman teaching the Bible; I required students to use a translation other than the revered NIV; I suggested it was important to study Jesus’ life (his death and resurrection being vastly more important in such circles); and, perhaps, most challenging, I suggested doubt is a key component of thoughtful faith. It was all too much. When the campus paper ran a cartoon casting me in front of students with a Hitler-styled mustache, I knew the university administrators were, rightly, nervous about how I might respond.
I imagine those who explore the intersections of feminism and the Bible are rare in most faith communities. But, on this morning, inspiration swirled in the air (it was Pentecost, after all), piquing renewed interest in stories we thought we knew. The result was what Nelle Morton called “hearing into speech.” I imagine Morton wouldn’t have been surprised that this occurred. She had, after all, observed that Pentecost reverses common logic so that hearing precedes speaking (Nelle Morton: The Journey is Home, 128.)
Our Sunday morning community surely wandered a far pace from Moses’ desert. But maybe wandering itself is instructive. Could it be that sometimes the glad surprise of good news is that holy ground finds you when you least expect it?
© Kendra Weddle 2023