Sigal Samuel on what happens when the matriarchs take a field trip to paradise  


“Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden” Lucas Cranach the Elder

In one of my favorite Talmudic stories, four rabbis enter a mystical garden known as the pardes, with bad results: one dies, one goes insane, one becomes a heretic, and only one comes out unscathed.

I’ve known and loved this story for years, but it was only recently that I came across the kabbalistic interpretation that suggests the four rabbis entered the garden with the goal of rectifying Adam’s original sin. Then it struck me: This was a story populated entirely by men, propelled by the desire to address the actions of another man.

I’m used to women being marginalized, invisibilized, and underrepresented in rabbinic texts, so this didn’t come as a huge surprise. Still, I wondered: What would happen if, instead of four men, it was four women — say, the four biblical matriarchs — who entered the pardes? And what if they were there to rectify the sin of the original woman? How would that change the story?

With those questions in mind, I set out to do something a lot of Jewish feminist artists do these days: disturb the gender representation ratio by supplanting male characters with female ones, and challenge the rabbinic male portrayal of these female characters by reimagining them as complex, powerful, desanitized agents. That process gave rise to a one-act play, “Four [Women] Entered Paradise.”

When the four matriarchs suddenly find themselves in a mysterious garden, they can’t remember their own names, much less their life stories. But that amnesia soon gives way to memories of their pasts — all fraught with issues of motherhood and barrenness — and to the belief that they’ve been brought here to meet Eve, the original mother. What Eve tells the women sets in motion the familiar Talmudic plot arc — one dies, one goes insane, one becomes a heretic, and one comes out unscathed — but with a twist, as Eve reveals just how badly they’ve misconstrued her original “sin.”

In Genesis, the desire to gain social power through childbearing plays a central role in the life of each matriarch, so it felt very natural to me that questions about the intersection of motherhood and power should be at the crux of this play. In the biblical text, there’s an equation set up between those two terms: motherhood = power. It’s understood that bearing children is the surest way for a woman to secure her place in the world — and all of the matriarchs are portrayed as being obsessed with having kids.

But as the matriarchs in the play recall more about their lives, they begin to challenge the text’s assumption that motherhood and power go hand in hand. One by one, they remember the ways in which motherhood actually sapped them of power, left them tortured with anxiety, or otherwise ruined their lives. The more they remember, the angrier they get at the text for the way it’s covered up their ambivalence toward motherhood.

And this is another classical move in modern feminist mythmaking: you identify all that the rabbis might have misunderstood or willfully covered up about female characters, then gleefully rip it away to expose an aspect of these women that’s been hidden for too long. For me, there’s great feminist and writerly pleasure to be found in that kind of re-envisioning — in getting to see these female characters anew.

But I don’t want to stop there. Simply accusing the rabbis of getting it all wrong doesn’t give them enough credit. For all their faults, rabbinic texts actually record a lot of the anxieties that go along with motherhood. Though many of the rabbis’ stories can be seen as efforts to explain away that anxiety, by trying to explain it away, they end up preserving it — just as the pearl that forms around the grain of sand ends up encasing that irritant within it.

Eve hints at this idea when, having spent a good long while eavesdropping on the four matriarchs, she decides to come out and berate them:

You’ve all been standing around here complaining about how the texts cover up your truest, darkest selves — but how closely are you looking, really? Because, I’m telling you, the trace persists. If you want to know the truth of where — of who — you really come from, all you have to do is look.

To prove it, Eve deconstructs her own motherhood narrative. She reveals that her child, Cain, didn’t come from Adam; it came from her other lover — the snake. When all the matriarchs stare at her with shock and disgust, she says, “I don’t know why you’re all looking so surprised. It’s right there in your texts!” And, sure enough, she’s right: The idea that Eve had a child with the snake appears in both the Talmud and the Zohar.

Writing a play like “Four [Women] Entered Paradise” is — no doubt about it — an exercise in feminist mythmaking. But it’s also an effort to get out from under one of the most common pitfalls of that genre. And there’s a sort of paradox in that: Even as the play challenges rabbinic interpretations of biblical women, it uses those same interpretations to trace the way back to more positive portrayals. In a play like this one, we may be the ones who get to recover that tucked-away grain of sand, but we recover it only thanks to the rabbinic pearl.