Reading the Women of the Bible by Tikva Frymer-Kensky (Schocken, 446 pp., $15 paperback).
The fact that biblical society was patriarchal--that women were totally dependent on male heads of households--is old news, argues Tikva Frymer-Kensky in her study of women in the Bible. The Bible did not invent patriarchy, or slavery; they were simply "givens" of the ancient world. Yet within that context, stories about women serve a definite and deliberate function. A society is judged--and, in this case, judges itself--by its treatment of its most vulnerable members. Stories about women in the Bible, she suggests, serve as a self-conscious "social barometer" in ancient Israel's quest for a just society.
The key to understanding stories about biblical women lies in their placement, as Frymer-Kensky demonstrates. It is no accident that the most brutal stories concerning women victims--Jephthah's daughter and the Levite's concubine--occur in the Book of Judges, the chaotic pre-monarchy period when the Israelite tribes first settle in Canaan; it is the first hint that government is needed to prevent social disintegration. Similarly, the corruption of King David's reign that will lead to civil war is foreshadowed in the stories about women--David's adulterous affair with Bathsheba (and murder of her husband Uriah) and the rape of his daughter, Tamar, by her half-brother, Amnon.
Although most of these women are powerless, Frymer-Kensky believes that the Bible does not regard them as inferior or "other" in any respect except for power. Considering groups of stories about women--as "victors, victims, virgins, and 'voice of God' oracles"--she finds that while women are clearly subordinate in Israelite society, they are never cast as "different by nature." Negative images of women--such as "the dangerous sexual seductress"--only start to appear in late- and post-biblical writings heavily influenced by Hellenism. Frymer-Kensky also challenges the contemporary feminist notion that women are endowed with "special spiritual or psychological attributes." "This romantic feminist argument also flies in the face of our own reality, which includes dense women and intuitive, empathic men," she writes, noting that the women of the Hebrew Bible are as human and as varied as their male counterparts.
Sweeping away many of our assumptions about biblical images of women, Frymer-Kensky provides a new lens with which to read the biblical text. As for its contemporary relevance, she urges us to use the biblical text as a mirror, borrowing from its constant approach of self-critique concerning society's responsibility for protecting its most disadvantaged members.
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Scattered Among the Peoples: The Jewish Diaspora in Twelve Portraits by Allan Levine (Overlook Press, 474 pp., $35).
"Normally, I would not have attended morning synagogue services on Tisha B'Av," writes Allan Levine, but when he finds himself close to the site of the old ghetto in Venice, he cannot resist attending services at one of Venice's oldest synagogues. As he joins the men sitting on the floor (a traditional practice on this fast day), he reflects on the resilience of Jewish identity: "I may have spoken a different language and belonged to a foreign culture, but as Jews the bond between us was old and strong."
Levine begins his spirited history of Jews in Europe from the Spanish expulsion to modern times with a question inspired by his trip to Venice: How have Jews survived as a people through centuries of persecutions, forced conversions, and massacres? He attempts to answer this question by taking a close look at twelve Diaspora communities at various times and places. The result is a lively popular history featuring portraits of well-known personalities whose lives seem emblematic of the times in which they lived--Don Isaac Abravanel of Seville in 1492, on the eve of the Spanish expulsion; Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the founder of the Rothschild banking dynasty in 19th-century Frankfurt; Alfred Dreyfus, the army captain falsely accused of espionage, whose infamous trial unleashed a wave of antisemitism in fin-de-siècle Paris; Abe Cahan in New York at the height of Eastern European immigration to America; Abba Kovner in the Vilna Ghetto during the Holocaust. Each place called forth different survival strategies, as Jews tried to adapt to host societies while retaining a Jewish identity. Perhaps the most engaging chapter for readers interested in the birth of modern Jewish religious denominations, including the Reform Movement, is the one dealing with the German Jews of the 1840s, which features a host of Jewish religious reformers and fighters for Jewish emancipation.
A wide survey of this nature inevitably includes some errors and over-generalizations: Levine tends to attribute antisemitic uprisings against Jews to popular wrath over their economic role as middlemen, leaving out the active involvement of the Catholic Church in the Dreyfus Affair and that of the czarist government in the Russian pogroms. A mistranslation of S. R. Hirsch's famous phrase Torah im derekh eretz as "Torah or Jewish law should be accommodated to secular ways" is probably sending this famous spokesman for modern Orthodoxy rolling in his grave right now: Hirsch meant Jewish law could coexist with some modern ways, not be "accommodated" to them. Nevertheless, the broad outlines of modern Jewish history clearly emerge in this deftly written and well-organized narrative.
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Editor's note: The Union recommends two titles every quarter for book groups. A discussion guide is available on the Union for Reform Judaism's Significant Jewish Books Web site.
Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.
Copyright © 2004, Union for Reform Judaism