‘Sarah Laughed’ strengthens female voices in the Bible

For all the guff Jewish women get about being mouthy, there’s a distinct lack of female voices in the Old Testament.

Take Job’s wife (please): She loses her home, her children are killed and her husband continues to praise the One who made it all happen, and all she can say is “Curse God and die!”

I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing her actual speech was longer, louder and a bit more specific about the curses.

And then there’s Leah: She gives her husband six healthy sons and the guy still doesn’t love her. What woman needs to put up with that in total silence?

And how about the nameless “Woman Who Has Given Birth”? Surely she had something to say about all the rules, offerings and sacrifices imposed on her right after a long labor with no anesthetic.

But now someone is putting words back in the mouths of these Jewish babes. In “Sarah Laughed: Modern Lessons from the Wisdom & Stories of Biblical Women,” Vanessa L. Ochs digs deep into biblical text, midrash and feminist theory to give new dimensions to female characters previously dismissed as ancillary or, worse, quiet.

That’s not to say we haven’t heard the stories of the biblical matriarchs before now, but there’s just been something so, well, prissy about them.

Ochs, director of Jewish studies at the University of Virginia, admits ignoring those “Great Women of the Bible” books we all got in Sunday school as rewards for being “good, helpful, prompt and attentive.” The books, she writes, had a “conservative agenda: to mold me into a pious, compliant transmitter of the values of my culture, to preserve my being a nice girl.”

The truly interesting women of the Bible, the ones with the chutzpah — like Dinah and Vashti and the bold speakers like Miriam — are usually presented as naughty troublemakers. The matriarchs (Sarah, Leah, Rachel and Rebecca), however, are all devoted, strong and, for the most part, unquestioning in the versions of the stories that were written on papyrus and passed down through the centuries.

Forget that, say the Jewish women of the 21st century. (Well, some of us use more colorful language.) We don’t need nice girls; we need role models to help us through life’s trials — abandonment by lovers, the heartbreak of infertility, loss of faith. While our biblical foremothers experienced these, all we have are one-dimensional reports of their reactions — “Sarah laughed,” “Leah cried,” “Vashti refused to get naked.”

This is where Ochs makes the tricky leap between Torah interpretation and New Age feminist imagination.

Each chapter begins with a traditional tale of one woman (or a group of women, like the Daughters of Tzlofhad), followed by a longer rewrite by Ochs titled “In Her Own Words.” Granted, if we had the women’s own words, Ochs wouldn’t have to make them up, but she gives these heroines such rich, original perspectives that she can be forgiven for occasionally going too far. (For instance, she interprets the theme of Dina’s story as “not being afraid to step out into the world” when it all ends up so badly — she gets raped, remember? Seems like a stretch.)

Vashti, barely given a glance in the Megillah in which Esther is the star, receives queenly treatment as a revered woman who refuses to give up her honor for the sake of other women. (Though Esther does get her own chapter about inner beauty, Ochs is obviously bored with her “nice girl” persona.)

Job’s wife finally has an outlet to vent her rage, and Jephthah’s daughter relinquishes her victim status as her father’s sacrifice.

For the most part Ochs manages to freshen up these tired women of the Bible, in some cases giving them sassy, “you go girl!” makeovers that will surely appeal to those seeking biblical relevance in modern life. She couches her extensive theological knowledge in a cozy tone, presenting our previously distant female ancestors as no different than your best girlfriends and their cool aunties (except they didn’t have lattes to kibbitz over back then).

Each woman’s challenge is presented as an opportunity for empowerment — after she gets her chance to speak. And if modern Jewish women are to draw strength from the ancients, we must have a voice to follow that speaks our language.

 

“Sarah Laughed” by Vanessa L. Ochs (229 pages, McGraw-Hill, $16.95).