Umansky, E. and D. Ashton, Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality

E. Umansky and D. Ashton, Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality, Boston, Beacon Press: 1992. Pp. xviii + 350.
 

C. Newsom and S. Ringe, The Women’s Bible Commentary, Louisville, KY, Westminster / John Knox: 1992. Pp. xix + 396. *
 

The appearance of these two books opens up the world of contemporary women’s thinking on the Bible and the Jewish tradition. Only women can say whether this literature responds to their inner needs; I review these books as a male, middle-aged, heterosexual, traditionally Jewish, professor of Judaic Studies who has followed and supported the work of my women colleagues over the years. While these books are very different, I find each fascinating.

Newsom and Ringe’s The Women’s Bible Commentary is organized by the books of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Each chapter is devoted to one book and follows roughly the same structure: a summary of the scholarly opinion on authorship and context followed by a commentary on the women’s issues raised in that book. There are also two essays on the daily life of women — in the period of the Hebrew Bible and in late antiquity. The almost uniform structure makes The Women’s Bible Commentary easy to follow but the quality of the essays varies, as one would expect in such a large anthology. All the authors raise the question of how a contemporary woman should read the biblical texts. Where, for instance, does a woman look for a religious role model? How does a woman deal with passages that “seem to bless the harm and abuse with which women live and sometimes die”? As an answer, some authors take an outright apologetic tone, seeking to contextualize misogynist passages without drawing any contemporary spiritual implications. Others confront the misogynist character of specific passages. Others show the thoroughness of the patriarchal images and expectations of the texts at hand. Still others try to recover the lives of biblical women as an echo of, and model for, contemporary women’s lives. The Women’s Bible Commentary gives us some re-visioning of the textual-historical record together with some reframing of women’s spiritual use of the Bible.

A reviewer can only highlight a few essays; I choose those that struck me most. Niditch’s essay on Genesis renders “Adam” as “Earthling” and points out that Eve is the one who is the seeker of knowledge, the tester of limits, the bringer of culture (a point made earlier and differently by Mieke Bal in Lethal Love). She also points out that the matriarchs are the active participants, though often as “tricksters,” while the patriarchs are more passive. Wegner’s Leviticus is an exceptionally clear statement of the patriarchal assumption that, while a woman’s body does not belong to the dominant male in her life unless she is a slave, a woman’s sexual and reproductive capacities are his property, and the law reflects this very clearly. Frymer-Kensky’s Deuteronomy is probably the most detailed scholarly essay in the Hebrew Bible section. She meticulously examines all the laws pertaining to women. Among her most interesting observations: gossip about an unmarried daughter impugns the father’s honor, not hers; Deuteronomy closes the gaps in law and practice left open in the Genesis narratives; and le`annot is best translated “to abuse.” Weems’ Song of Songs interprets the book not as a paean to erotic love but as a political statement about socially irregular love. She points out that the name of God does not appear in the Song of Songs, a fact well known about the Book of Esther but apparently repressed about the Song of Songs. Ackerman’s Isaiah sets the tone for the prophetic books by naming the woman as the image par excellence of unfaithfulness. She also lists the passages where God’s motherhood is mentioned. O’Connor’s essays on Jeremiah and Lamentations and Darr’s Ezekiel summarize the misogynist imagery in those books with great force. For those of us raised on the exaltedness of the call of the prophets, these essays are a shock. Ezekiel’s chapters 16 and 23 are probably the low point of this trend. It is hard to see how one could “redeem” this literature. Finally, Meyers’ essay on daily life sets the context of the whole admirably.

It is interesting for Jews to read the section on the New Testament because the same problems appear with the literature and the same ambiguities appear in the interpreters. The literature has strong misogynistic tendencies and the interpreters move among apology, historical contextualizing, and recovering the sparks of the texts. Schaberg’s Luke is probably the clearest statement of the misogyny of that text, pointing out that even the positive image of women is shaped into one who learns in silence and is obedient, trustful, and self-sacrificial. Schaberg questions whether these images can be used by contemporary women or whether religious freedom is really “freedom to answer back.” Wordelman’s essay on daily life for women in late antiquity is excellent.

Umansky and Ashton’s Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality is a very full collection of Jewish women’s writings through the ages. In her introductory essay, the best of its kind to date, Umansky points out that the exculsion of women from public worship and formal study led even literate women to channel their spiritual needs into private devotion. Most of their literature from before the sixteenth century has been lost; this is a collection of the literature since then. Umansky divides it into four periods. In the first, 1560-1800, women produced tkhines (private meditations), memoirs, and letters. The tkhines are particularly interesting, following an order which is not that of the siddur and appealing to the God of the matriarchs for personal and not public needs. In the second period, 1800-1890, women took a more active role is social, philanthropic, educational, and cultural activities, in addition to devoting time to home piety. Their output consisted of novels, essays, poems, ethical wills, much of it highly literary in style. In the third period, 1890-1960, women became active in religious organizations and in secular Jewish movements. Some of the legends of our time come from this period: Lily Montagu (on whom Umansky has written two books), Henrietta Szold, Rebekah Kohut, and others. This, too, is the period of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, the Women’s League, the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, and the Jüdische Frauenbund. The fourth period, 1960-1990, is characterized by an increasingly larger number of women doing an increasingly varied number of things as Jewish women. They are seeking to “forge a link between individual experience and Jewish teachings as a way to find personal meaning in Jewish rituals, observances, and texts.” Umansky and Ashton bring a wide selection, although one can always quibble about what else should have been included.

Here, too, one can only review a few essays; again, I choose those that struck me most. The essays on biblical women are very interesting: there are two on Eve (Amir’s poem speaks of Eve’s joy in being pregnant), two on Lot’s wife (in which she cannot simply cut off her roots in Sodom), a touching essay by Plaskow on Lilith and Eve as they talk with one another and grow close, and one by Umansky on Sarah as she realizes what is happening at the Akedah. There are some beautiful poems, particularly Moldowsky’s “Songs of Women.” There are several essays on the mikveh, including Ukeles’ beautiful “Mikveh Dreams,” Blu Greenberg’s personal meditation, and Levitt and Wasserman’s service for use of the mikveh after a rape.

The autobiographical essays have an interest of their own for, in them, we see evolving persons. Geller’s “Encountering the Divine Presence” raises that issue in a series of situations specific to women’s experience: infertility, menopause, abuse, and divorce. Spiegel grows toward Judaism after experiences with an alcoholic, Alanon, and the Twelve Steps. And Benjamin moves within a Judaism haunted by the spectre of a growing awareness of child abuse. These are not experiences from within which Jewish men, even Jewish male professionals, seek to define their Jewishness.

Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality and The Women’s Bible Commentary put aspects of women’s experience, scholarship, and literature out on the table for all to see, to discuss, to enjoy, and perhaps from which to grow. Women will affirm or disaffirm this literature as a valid expression of their worlds; scholars will critique it for historical and literary accuracy. Meanwhile for men, in our multicultural and gender-sensitive world, these books are a good portal into the world of women’s thinking on matters of religion, sacred text, Jewishness, and personal experience.

 

* Appeared in Jewish Spectator (Spring 1993) 58-9.

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