Over the past several decades, a cottage industry of first-person narratives by Jewish women — rabbis, academics, traditional scholars of Jewish sacred texts — has cropped up in which autobiographical content of a spiritual nature blends with feminist-inflected Torah teaching. The genre is connected to auto-ethnography — wherein “cultural concerns are explored or displayed through representations of the self.” That is how Alisa S. Lebow, author of First Person Jewish, an analysis of Jewish first-person films, describes these finely detailed memoirs that are intended as scholarly projects in which a woman’s life is investigated in order to explicate “larger social formations and historical processes…”
Those of us who write this type of nonfiction may not call our work scholarship, although it is based on a deep knowledge of Jewish texts, history, theology, and feminist theory. We weave narrations of our own personal experiences and reflections onto traditional texts. Why do we pursue this work — especially those of us in the academy— when the writing is not considered or rewarded as traditional scholarship? Feminist theologian Rachel Adler offers one reason: “The world of patriarchy cries out for mending.” And, I would add: How could we not respond to the call to take up our needles? Perhaps we write to claim a voice and a place of authority, or perhaps to forge a healing connection to the texts and the chains of textual transmission that have excluded us until recently. Perhaps we are women fueled by Rabbi Laura Geller’s repeated admonition to write the “Torah of our lives,” or we have learned from feminist biblical scholars Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and we are taking up the challenge of the late Protestant feminist theologian Nelle Morton of “hearing silence into speech.”
I think about our industry and the Jewish and Christian women writing in this genre. We are all scratching our way in, narrating our way into traditions that would not have given us the time of day or place on the pulpit only some blinks of the eye ago. Obviously, there are differences. The Christian women writers speak of faith with an easy certainty and address God as an intimate who participates in their lives through signs that are discernable through reflection and prayer. Their core narrative moves through suffering to faith and then to salvation. Despite the differences, they dance — with their Jewish sisters — a similar tango of telling a personal story and wresting meaning, belonging, and authority from the text.
Often, we are given an assignment to “narrate a story from your life and show how your understanding of sacred text was a source of wisdom or coherence.” I wrote Sarah Laughed: Modern Lessons from the Wisdom and Stories of Biblical Women, a book of feminist midrash, because an editor asked me to retell the stories of biblical women in my own voice and to demonstrate that they hold wisdom for women today. (There are two translations of the title for the Chinese editions that both come with chick-lit covers: One says something like “You Can Use Your Mind,” and the other says, “Nine Ways to be Happy.”)
Over the years, I’ve accepted many assignments that require me to bring my voice into a relationship with text because I continually hope to forge some heartfelt connection to text, something larger than scholarly curiosity and appreciation. I’d occasionally persuade myself that finally I had entered productively into sacred text, or as my teachers at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies would have preferred, that text had entered into me.
I always struggle to hear a countertext within the text, imagining the text as something other than what I read on the paper. This is an exercise of hearing myself into sacred text — one that I have come to suspect as a form of self-hypnotism. The lulling sound of our voices telling our own stories is the pendulum that goes back and forth, until the hypnotic suggestion is planted and we believe that we have gained access and power through exercises of textual appropriation.
When I read the creative exegetical hybrid work of authors such as Rachel Adler, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer and Wendy Zierler, in the recent collection (of which I am part) Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives, I see something genuine, something I don’t doubt: a graceful dance with sacred texts, a conviction about having stood at Sinai and heard something. In my own work, I see the honest effort, the willingness to join “Team Jewish Feminism” in the uphill race to fill the library’s “Women and Judaism” shelf. To hear my silence and the Torah’s silence into an integrated speech: For me, that goal still remains allusive.email print