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Scents and Sensuality

From the Temple to Today

Seduction and sexuality are shown in a new light in two unusual books. The Aroma of Righteousness (Penn State, $69.95) by Deborah A. Green offers a thorough analysis of the role of aroma and scent in the Bible and in rabbinic thought. Her wide-ranging work touches on linguistics, sociology, anthropology, and archaeology, in addition to text study. Green begins by looking at spices, their role, and their use in everyday life. She analyzes metaphor and images inherent in smell, lending meaning to our understanding of God, Israel’s relationship with God, and social structure in Israel itself. This includes the gendered imagery of the woman as a sensual garden in the Songs of Songs, perfumes involved in bathing and anointing, and incense used for ritual purposes. Green shows how the use of spices such as myrrh, cassia, and olive oil in the incense used in the Temple helped the biblical priesthood to define its role and authority, particularly in the stories about the death of Aaron’s sons and the rebellion of Korach.

In Biblical Seductions (Ktav, $29.50), Sandra E. Rapoport, a lawyer specializing in sexual harassment cases, approaches the Bible through the lens of her work. She retells Bible narratives which focus on women’s sexuality, or conversely, the sexual abuse of women, and interweaves the original text with later rabbinic interpretations. Through the stories of Dinah, Tamar, Batsheva, Ruth and Lot’s daughters she contends with the motives of both the men and the women. Rapoport thus leads the reader to think more deeply about these women, and to struggle with questions not directly included in the biblical text.

While the result is a beautifully written and highly readable book, I found myself often struggling with the author’s approach. Rapoport generally rereads biblical texts through the lens of midrash, traditional rabbinic interpretation. She rejects this approach, however, when, as a woman and a lawyer, she finds the rabbinic interpretations offensive. In several instances she zealously dismisses a midrash because it is not well supported in the biblical text itself, although she does not hesitate to embrace similarly interpretive readings more congenial to her own point of view. For instance, she refutes the rabbinic assertion that the episode commonly known as “the rape of Dinah” could have been consensual on the grounds that the Bible does not explicitly indicate otherwise. While Rapoport’s writing reflects her efforts to support Biblical women, at times she seems to lack the biblical and linguistic background to present more fully her case and her readings.

Both of these books are valuable and worthy contributions to the field of biblical studies. They draw new meaning from biblical texts, reminding us that approaching the Bible from such varied fields lends holiness to the endeavor and ultimately to the text itself. 

Ora Horn Prouser is executive vice president and academic dean of The Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, NY.