An Interview With Novelist Eva Etzioni-Halevy

We did this via email (her website is here and her new book is "The Triumph of Deborah"):

Q: How did you maintain your writing style despite years in academia? Normally academic writing ruins writers.

A: For me it was the other way around. I was engaged in academic writing for more years than I care to remember, and only when I became emeritus, did I switch over to the writing of biblical novels.

      Adopting the new writing style was an incredible culture shock, somewhat like immigrating into a new country. It must have been sitting inside me, but it took quite a few years and an incredible amount of drudgery to work it out, and I am still trying to improve and polish it and make it as authentic a reflection of biblical times as possible.  

Q: What is a feminist and are you one?


A: I will not try for a definition, because I think that there are as many types of feminism as there are feminists.

For my part, I am a feminist in the sense that I believe that women are strong, possibly stronger than men, but in a different manner. Men’s strength shows on the outside, while women look soft and at times fragile on the outside, but their strength lies inside them, in their capacity for endurance, for coping in the face of life’s vicissitudes.

I have learned a lot of this from the women of the Bible. These women lived in a male dominated society, in which they had few legal rights and were greatly disadvantaged. But they did not sit around bemoaning their fate. Instead (with few exceptions), they took destiny into their own hands and used their feminine strength to shape it to do their bidding and achieve what they wanted to achieve in life.

Deborah is a prime example. In an era when the lot of women was dismal, she succeeded in "breaking the glass ceiling." She became a national leader, and what we might today call a chief justice, and a chief rabbi, all wrapped in one. We know that she did all this without losing her femininity, since she refers to herself as "a mother in Israel," and this is the way I also described her in my novel.

In this sense, I believe that she can serve as a role model for present day women. Although the lot of women has improved, and in western societies they have attained legal equality, they are still far from gaining equality in practice. What we can learn from Deborah is that apart from struggling for better conditions, we can say to ourselves: "I am a strong person. Whatever is right for me, I can do it."

Q: How would you feel about the placement of your book in the romance genre?

A: There are romantic elements in THE TRIUMPH OF DEOBRAH. But there are also some non-romantic messages tucked away underneath its surface.

Apart from feminist messages on the strength of women (that of Deborah and the other female characters in the novel), there are also Jewish themes woven into it. Despite some sensuous scenes it is a deeply religious book. It takes us back to the roots of Judaism. In a rather painless way, so as not to bore readers, it conveys messages on the core values of Judaism and its struggle to establish itself and survive in the face of idol worship, or what we would today call assimilation.   

Q: How does living in Israel affect your writing?


A: There is a difficulty here, in the sense that I am writing in English, mainly for an American audience. I have a problem reaching out across the ocean to my potential readers.

      But this is more than made up for by the fact that I live "on location" so to speak and derive inspiration from the land in which the plots I describe actually took place. I have gone to the places in which the stories are set, and this has fired my imagination.

      For instance, I have twice visited King Jabin’s castle in Hazor. Although it lies in ruins now, one can still see the stairs leading up to it, the entrance hall, the throne hall, and so on. So I could visualize how and where some of the scenes of my novel actually took place, and describe the setting more accurately than I could otherwise have done. 

Q: Is Judaism a patriarchal religion and if so, is this bad?

A: Judaism has its roots in a patriarchal society, and hence, not surprisingly, many of its laws are patriarchal. Instead of saying that this is bad, I would say that it is changing, but too slowly. So much has been written about this, that there is no point in my adding to it. However, I will make two related points.

First, there is a strong feminist movement among orthodox women in Israel, by the name of "Kolech" (your voice). It faces great difficulties, but it is also making some headway, so let us hope for its success. 

            Second, there is at least one non-patriarchal and progressive aspect in Judaism. By Torah law, which was also incorporated into the later Halachah, sex in marriage is not the right of the man, but that of the woman.

            After one of the talks I gave in the States about my novels a (reform) rabbi cam up to me and said: "Jewish women are forever complaining on how hard their lot is. But actually the lot of Jewish men is much harder. A Jewish wife can always say to her husband, ‘Not tonight, dear, I have a headache.’ But a Jewish husband is not allowed to say that, he always has to be obliging."  

Q: Do you agree with Orthodoxy’s separate roles for each sex system?


A: Certainly not. For instance, talking about the synagogue service: I am Shomereth Mitzvoth myself and member of a modern orthodox congregation, but I resent being concealed behind a curtain. I am full of admiration for the manner in which Conservative and Reform congregations have achieved equality for women, and I feel regretful for having to go to one of their shuls to be able to kiss the Torah.

Q: What do you find most surprising about the way regular people in Israel lead their lives today?

What I find most surprising, is that regular people live regular lives. Israel faces existential threats from the north (Hizbullah) the north-east (Syria and Iran), the east (Fatah) and the south (Hamass), all of which are numerically greatly superior, and armed to the teeth.

            Yet people live normally, enjoying their lives with their families and friends, just as people do elsewhere. To my mind, this is nothing short of a miracle.

Q: What are the most dramatic differences between the Biblical worldview and the Talmudic worldview? (I saw your blog where you said you wrote based on the Bible, not on Midrash.)


A: This question is several sizes too big on me. But I can say what I see as the most dramatic differences between the way in which the Bible describes its characters, and the manner in which these same characters are described by later interpreters, by Talmudic scholars and the Midrash. 

            I have great respect for them as learned biblical scholars, who helped keep Judaism alive for thousand of years. Nevertheless I take exception from the manner in which they describe biblical characters.

            In the Bible, the main characters (including women), and even the most exalted heroes and heroines, are described as rich, many-sided human beings, with strengths but also with weaknesses, some of which stem from their sexuality. In many cases, the later interpreters have "interpreted away" this sensuality, and turned the characters into one-dimensional, super-righteous personalities, which they were not meant to be originally.

            For instance, whether we like it or not, Moses is described in the Bible as having divorced his wife Ziporah, and taken another woman, a kushite or black woman (although Ziporah was later brought back to him by her father.). We know that he went for this other woman, because his brother and sister commented unfavorably about it. But the Midrash and most later interpreters could not accept that Moses was attracted to another woman, and argued that the kushite was actually his wife Ziporah. This, however, is clearly not what the scripture says. Moreover, if she were his wife, what was there for his siblings to gossip about?

            Or, take the case of Deborah and Barak, described in my novel. The Bible tells us that on his behest she went off with him to another part of the country, including his hometown. Yet she was a married woman and there is nothing to indicate that husband Lapidoth accompanied them. So when they were away with no husband in sight, it is unlikely that they sat around saying Tehilim together, hence this is not what I made them do in my novel.

One interpreter tried to solve the "difficulty" by claiming that Deborah was actually married to Barak, which is glaringly in contradiction to what the scripture says.

To my mind, this is a shame. The Bible is good enough as it is, and none of its aspects need to be interpreted away. Hence I based my novels directly on the Bible, as it has been written, not as it has been reinterpreted.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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