Sacred Voices: Women of Genesis Speak * * * * * (5)
by Sherri Waas Shunfenthal (Available at Amazon.com)
In Sacred Voices: Women of Genesis Speak, Sherri Waas Shunfenthal examines, through numerous poems, the thoughts, emotions, and actions of the women who inhabit the pages of the first book of the Pentateuch, fleshing out "the silence /between words." She writes also of the extrabiblical character Lilith, who has in this age become a sort of poster girl for the modern feminist movement. And, despite the title of the book, she also presents the voice of Miriam (of Exodus fame). Noticeably and regrettable absent from the montage of tales is that of Tamar, daughter-in-law to Judah.
In Scripture, these women are far less developed than their male counterparts, and the creative female imagination must, I believe, inevitably speculate about their unspoken perspective. With the exception of the songs of Deborah and Miriam, the ancient Scriptures were written exclusively by men. Although I find Midrash fascinating and believe it can be edifying, I have a theological objection to it when it tends to contradict the original stories. Shunfenthal's version of Genesis does this from time to time. For one, it endorses the felix culpa, a misinterpretation of Genesis that is especially popular in secular circles, although it has likewise made inroads into Jewish and Christian thought. This is the idea that man and woman, by disobeying God in order to eat the forbidden fruit, actually brought about a "fortunate fall" and ushered in an age of profound knowledge that made man better off. Or, as Shunfenthal phrases it, "Humans were just one / of many beasts before Eve ventured forth." This is actually a rather cleverly worded encapsulation of the philosophy. This interpretation of the Genesis account of man's fall, though common, would make God an arbitrary tyrant, rebellion a virtue, and suffering a blessing rather than a curse. We forget, all too often, that Adam and Eve ate not of the "Tree of Knowledge," but rather of the "Tree of Knowledge of good AND EVIL."
In the last decade, Midrash has become a powerful weapon in the hands of modern feminists who wish to degrade traditional religious perspectives and dismiss much sacred history as merely "patriarchal." In literature, this perspective has virtually become a cliché. Although women are certainly underdeveloped in scripture, it is, I believe, possible to flesh-out these stories without, at the same time, contradicting the original text or pushing a political agenda. Unlike many feminist authors of Midrash, however, Shunfenthal does at least show some degree of respect for the role of men in Jewish sacred history, as is evidenced by many of the words she places into the mouth of Noah's wife. Indeed, even her poem "Hagar" is as much about Ishmael as it is about his mother, and despite the seemingly exclusive title of the book, we also hear the stories and voices of men. (Take for instance "The Dream," in which the poet explores the mind of Abraham, or "Ascension," in which she traces Isaac's journey up the mountain of sacrifice.) For this more encompassing approach, I must applaud the author. The blurbs on the cover lead me to believe she would have a more narrow vision; I was pleased to discover otherwise.
Nevertheless, much of Shunfenthal's work does exhibit a feminist political thrust. As a woman who believes that modern feminism has done as much harm for women as the more "old fashioned" feminism has done good, I found some of Shunfenthal's message unpalatable. And as a monotheist who is disturbed by the growing trend of goddess worship which seems to have made inroads even into Jewish Midrash, I am skeptical of anything that appears to be too great an exaltation of the human woman, an exaltation which I believe occurs to some degree in Shunfenthal's Eve and Lilith poems. As has been previously mentioned, in Shunfenthal's version of Genesis, it is the aspiration of Eve, and not the gift of God, which separates man from the beast. Lilith "lights the darkness," while Eve is created "in her own image." (Much more blatant overtones of goddess worship can be found in other works of Midrash, such as Anita Diamant's Red Tent. Shunfenthal does not duplicate Diamant's error, but she does hover dangerously close to it.)
But setting aside my theological and political objections, I can find much positive to say about the author's book. Though a small press publication, Sacred Voices is impressively presented, complete with appropriate drawings by Judybeth Greene, which complement the poems nicely. The author has obviously put a great deal of thought into her portraits, having been informed by Scripture, Midrash, and her own creative passions. Perhaps the most insightful work in the collection is "Lot’s Wife," in which the unnamed woman's fatal action of looking back is depicted with compassion. The series of Leah poems are also well-developed.
The author's poetry is not defined by any meter or particularly outstanding rhythms, and it is differentiated from prose primarily by line division and the brevity of its sentences. But the poet's very simplicity succeeds in creating a feminine voice (or third person perspective) that seems both sincere and innocent, almost naive. When the poet employs imagery, she is not just following workshop conventions or attempting to impress the reader with obscure associations. Although not miserly with regard to her use of images, similes, and metaphors, Shunfenthal is economic. This economy can make a single, unpretentious line of comparison stand out from a poem with power. When Sarah stands "rooted like a tree," for instance, an image immediately leaps to the reader's mind, despite the simplicity of the simile. However, I must confess that despite these positives, sometimes the overall simplicity of the poetry is a bit too stark for my taste.
As a bonus, Shunfenthal adds to the tail end of her book some prose discussion of each of the characters, and much of this is as informative as it is interesting. I was edified to learn, for instance, that the story of Lilith may have originated because of what appears to be the two separate creation accounts in Genesis. These prose sections demonstrate the same simplicity of form as the author's poetry.