Joseph and Esther as Feminine Characters

Professor Rachel Adelman speaks to the femininity of Biblical characters Joseph and Esther

On Thursday, November 21, the Quest spoke with Professor Rachel Adelman about a lecture she was giving titled “Gender Bending in the Story of Joseph and Esther.” Adelman is an alumna of Reed College, class of ‘85. A strong feminist, she has had an interest in women’s issues since her time as a Reed undergraduate. She edited a progressive women’s magazine titled The Rude Girl Press, and petitioned for women’s writing to be included in Humanities 210. A Biology major, Professor Adelman’s work with the humanities moved her so much that when she decided to stay in Israel after Reed for her Ph.D., instead of going into the sciences, she transferred her literary skills to Hebrew literature and began studying and teaching literary analysis of Hebrew texts. She has written two books, The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha and The Female Ruse: Women’s Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible. Currently she teaches Bible study at Hebrew College in Boston, MA as an Associate Professor.

Her lecture on Esther and Joseph, an extension of her second book, mixed her love of the Hebrew Bible and her dedication to feminism by analyzing the stories of Esther and Joseph in their depictions of femininity. Her argument is that femininity is a social construct created by ideas and norms superimposed onto women, and so anyone can be a feminine character, including male ones. This is particularly relevant to her lecture, as the main focus of it was how Esther and Joseph overcome their feminine characterizations to become strong leaders of the community. Her argument for Joseph being portrayed as a feminine figure lies in the way he is characterized, such as how he uses subterfuge in court to create change, a feminine skill, and how he is objectified as an attractive lover by his master’s wife, a position females are traditionally put in. Because of these feminine characteristics, Professor Adelman argues that Joseph is a feminine figure, and as a feminine figure, he must go through the same process Esther does to shed his femininity and gain power.

In order to gain power and overcome their feminine sides, Joseph and Esther must go through three phases of change. First, they are the object of people’s desire. Esther was objectified by the king for her beauty and sexual prowess, while Joseph was objectified by his brothers and his master’s wife for his favor with their father and his handsomeness, respectively. Then, the characters must go through some form of isolation. Joseph is literally isolated twice — first in the pit and then in jail — and both Joseph and Esther are isolated from their people by pretending to not be Jewish and following another society’s norms. Finally, they both become active participants in their story by shedding their false faces and reclaiming their Jewish identity. This way, they have the power to save their people. Esther does so by literally writing laws to protect the Jews in Persia, and Joseph does so through reconciling with and protecting his family. Through these acts, both Esther and Joseph have moved away from the femininity that dominated their character and become the subject of their own destiny.

Professor Adelman wanted the students listening to her lecture to take away not just the material, but a desire to read Hebrew texts in new ways. “I hope [the students] take away a sense of excitement about the Hebrew Bible, and a sense of creative reading strategies for mining the biblical text,” she explained. Overall, she succeeded in her goal. Her lecture was an uncommon but relevant reading of the Hebrew texts because, while she does not focus heavily on the modern aspects of femininity, the ideas of feminine identity and feminine objectification are questions that we are still grappling with today. While her lecture could have explained a bit more on the definition of femininity and how femininity was perceived during the time the stories were written, she did a good job explaining how Esther and Joseph go through the three stages to gain power, and why the stages were necessary for them to reconcile with themselves and their Jewish identity. 

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