Bodies in The Bible

An incisive examination

Lori Hope Lefkovitz brings her own subversive feminist sensibility to In Scripture: The First Stories of Jewish Sexual Identities (Rowman & Littlefield, $49.95) where she proposes to apply psychoanalytic and gender theory to selected biblical narratives from Genesis to the Book of Ruth. Her goal is to look at “a set of first stories particularly for their power to have set in motion definitions of the body, the sexual body, and the Jewish sexual body that developed over time.”

The questions Lefkovitz asks and the categories she proposes to consider are challenging and stimulating. In stunning balletic leaps, each of the nine chapters begins with a summary of a biblical episode, then arcs through feminist and gender theory as well as rabbinic exegesis, ultimately touching down in the midst of contemporary culture.

Lefkovitz is both sharp and playful in her application of a variety of post-modern gender theories in each of the chapters. In accessible language, she explains such potentially difficult ideas as the semiotics of linguistic classification, French feminist theory, Queer theory and the idea of fluid gender identity, comparative cultural norms and counter-cultural traditions, among others, and skillfully applies them to her selected biblical texts. Readers who are curious about these contemporary concepts will find clear and useful introductions in these pages.

The reading strategy she employs is “unorthodox, moving both forward from the Bible to later Western stereotypes… and backward, presuming that readings that seem inevitable today are a consequence of …truths that have been put in place over the millennia between biblical time and the present.” She views this strategy as a way of challenging our concept of what is natural, including definitions of sexuality and ethnicity. Yet, on occasion, Lefkovitz unaccountably fails to question these most basic gender assumptions, in spite of her goal of subverting accepted readings of these stories. For example, in discussing gender identities in the creation stories of Genesis, Lefkovitz assumes that the snake is male, applying the Western Freudian equivalent of snake as phallus, even though, in its cultural context in the ancient Near East, the snake is a symbol of water and is associated with the female principle; Tiamat, the Mesopotamian mother goddess, is a serpent. Lefkovitz also reads both God and Adam as male, even though God is only grammatically male in the Bible — the Divine sexual gender itself is purposely indeterminate.

Lefkovitz, a professor of Gender and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, writes in a readable, personable prose, underpinned by sound scholarship, as the solid and informative endnotes testify. This book will shake up many assumptions, as it cuts a wide swath through biblical, rabbinic, and Western cultures, applying a range of gender theories in surprising ways.

Diane M. Sharon is a member of the faculty in Bible at the Academy for Jewish Religion. She is the author of a book and many articles dealing with the Hebrew Bible, comparative religion, and women’s studies.