Exegesis and Ritual Cookbook

March 1, 2005
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Jill Hammer

Vanessa Ochs, Sarah Laughed: Modern Lessons from the Wisdom and Stories of Biblical Women (McGraw-Hill, 2004) 233 pp., $24.95

Sarah Laughed: Modern Lessons from the Wisdom and Stories of Biblical Women, by Vanessa Ochs, is a complex and multilayered journey through the spirit.Ochs has set out to retell stories of biblical women, weave them with stories of her own life, and draw inspiration and ritual from these tales to offer readers.The result is a rich exploration of mythic and modern Jewish women and the values that infuse their lives.Sarah Laughed is narrative, exegesis, theology, ethnography, personal reflection, and ritual cookbook. The book will be appealing both to novices as biblical text and to readers who have been exploring these stories a long time.

Ochs begins her musings with a retelling of a biblical woman’s story, followed by an interpretation that includes a story from the author’s own life or the life of someone close to her.This doubled way of telling a tale models what the author wants her readers to do: connect their own lives with the ancient text.Ochs does not ignore the misogyny in the Bible, but she also does not dwell on it; her interest is in how the stories echo and resound in modern women’s own experience. Ochs’ constructed narratives and rituals stay focused on raw reality — the vulnerability of women as well as their need and capacity for empowerment.

Ochs goes further than many contemporary midrashists by not confining herself to individual personalities. She also explores the meaning of generic characters such as the “Woman of Valor” and the “Woman Who Has Given Birth.”This widening of the field of midrashic narrative allows her to confront both troublesome and meaningful biblical texts about women in new ways.Ochs also explores with sympathy traditionally vilified characters like Vashti and Job’s wife.

From each narrative, Ochs extracts a simple message that a reader can carry and a ritual to use when claiming the spiritual gifts of that mythic ancestor.For Hagar, it is dream interpretation. For Leah, it is a letter of blessing to a loved one.At certain moments one wishes Ochs would expand these sections of the book, because they hint at a powerful paradigm for Jewish life, one focused on relationships and on psychological and ethical growth.

One of Ochs’ gifts is the ability to point women toward appreciating themselves: her ritual for the “Woman of Valor” involves thinking about a negative trait and then figuring out why it is really an asset.Yet her advice is not solely about internal thoughts and feelings; she also offers clear-eyed strategies for fomenting change in the larger society.In the voice of Zelophehad’s daughters, Ochs reminds us to be aware of existing policies and the mechanisms for change, to learn successful lines of argument, and to value and use our material property.In the voice of Jephthah’s daughter, she reminds us how important it is for women to befriend and support one another.

Part of what makes Sarah Laughed strong is its willingness to take risks. In a daring segment of the book, Ochs explores the “Women who Bake Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” — the women who worshipped goddesses in the days of Jeremiah.Ochs imagines the religious piety of these early Israelite practices and reminds her readers that there are many paths to truth. In another profound and unusual sequence related to Yocheved, Moses’ mother, Ochs explores what it means for mothers to let go of their children, describing the feeling of worry and the necessity of release with surprising honesty.

The metaphor that threads its way through Ochs’ book is baking and bread — from the cake-baking ritual she proposes in honor of Eve to the ritual breaking of bread among activist women in the chapter telling the story of the daughters of Zelophehad.Bread is the perfect metaphor for Ochs’ book because Ochs takes the grain of biblical text, mixes it with the leaven of modern experience, and produces a freshly baked loaf of wisdom.Her book is a nourishing read.

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Rabbi Jill Hammer is a senior associate at Ma'yan: the Jewish Women's Project of the JCC in Manhattan, the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women , and the founder of Tel Shemesh, a website celebrating earth-based traditions within Judaism.

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