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Subversive Torah

The radical idea that it’s an open book

In For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book (Rutgers, $22.95), Alicia Ostriker explores “countertexts” in Torah, texts which deviate from dominant Biblical themes and offer the seeds of subversion within the Bible itself. Her claim is that the Bible can be read in a way that undermines the mainstream American culture which ostensibly arises out of it. Of course, this is not news to progressive Jews. But what makes this small book powerful is not its basic thesis, but the prooftexts Ostriker brings to bear — and the impassioned precision with which she makes her arguments clear.

“To say that the Bible is an open book is to say… that any one may enter its chapter and verse… [it] is also to say that it encour undermines the mainstream American culture which ostensibly arises out of it. Of course, this is not news to progressive Jews. But what makes this small book powerful is not its basic thesis, but the prooftexts Ostriker brings to bear — and the impassioned precision with which she makes her arguments clear. “To say that the Bible is an open book is to say… that any one may enter its chapter and verse… [it] is also to say that it encourages awakening, loving, thinking, and being more alive.” This is, Ostriker admits, not the way most people tend to think about scripture. But it is this fierce belief which undergirds For the Love of God.

Ostriker has strong feelings about how we should read the Bible. The word-association game of mainstream American culture may link “Bible” with folks like the current crop of politically-inclined fundamentalist Christians — but in Ostriker’s mind, those men profoundly misunderstand the Bible’s radical openness, which is its greatest strength.

The Bible is an anthology that spans a thousand years. There’s a reason the sage Ben Bag Bag famously said (in Pirke Avot) “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it” — everything is in it, dogma and challenge, law and subversion, the ridiculous and the sublime. Of all this variety, Ostriker is most interested in its countertexts, and focuses on six of them: the sexpositive Song of Songs; the Book of Ruth with its subversion of social boundaries; the violent poetry of Psalms; Ecclesiastes bearing witness to ego and impermanence; Jonah’s tragicomic struggle with self and other; and Job’s challenge to theodicy.

For Ostriker, the Bible is “a fireworks display, with rockets shooting off in multiple shimmering directions.” That the metaphor is a verbal O’Keefe sketch is surely intentional; Ostriker’s Bible is juicy, surprising, abounding with depths which beg to be plumbed.

This hermeneutic stance is countercultural — and this, too, Ostriker grounds in text. Take the book of Ruth. Ruth is a Moabite who marries an Israelite, a match that Torah explicitly forbids. But out of that match comes the progenitor of King David, symbol of ultimate redemption. Not a bad role model for those of us who read the Bible in transgressive ways.

This is Ostriker’s strongest work of Biblical criticism since The Nakedness of the Fathers (1997). Her scholarly-critical eye and her lifetime of writing poetry work in concert here, which allows her to open up some dazzling poetic insights — e.g. that Job is rife with poetry which “erupts from agony, puncturing the surface of the text.” Or that the metaphors in Song of Songs operate, on linguistic levels, to blur boundaries and distinctions just as its lovers do.

Bringing poetry and feminism to bear on a text that has so often been (mis)-read in anti-woman and dully prosaic ways is still a radical act. Ostriker’s re-visioning argues that the text’s open spaces are its greatest strengths, and that we owe it to Torah — and to ourselves — to claim its radical possibilities as our own. If we could do that, everywhere really might be (in Judy Chicago’s words) “called Eden once again.”

Rachel Barenblat is a poet (author most recently of chaplainbook, Laupe House,
2006) and a student in the ALEPH rabbinic program. velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/