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Treif Jews: Feminism and a Living Torah

The Curse of Cain
by Regina Schwartz, University of Chicago Press, $22.95

Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life
edited by Debra Orenstein and Jane Litman
Jewish Lights, $24.95

Like Bread on a Seder Plate
by Rebecca Aipert, Columbia University Press, $24.50

The Harlot by the Side of the Road
by Jonathan Kirsch, Ballantine, $27

Is it possible to be a loud-mouthed woman, or a lesbian, or a radical, and still be a Good Jew? Yiddish writer Sholem Asch had a phrase for those who don’t play nice, who are not nice Jewish girls, or whose sexuality challenges the norm: treif Jews.” A batch of writers are now examining the lines we draw between who is Good and who is Bad, insider and outsider, “Yid” and “Goy.” In the midrashic tradition they tell and retell the stories that allow us to understand ourselves as Jews, filling in the silences and inventing the stories that have not been told.

In The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, Regina Schwartz, argues that in introducing the idea of a single God and a Chosen People, Judaism also introduced the notion of an “us” and a “them”—a system to which she attributes all other evils of history: oppression, imperialism, hierarchy and, by extension, sexism. How women fare in this binary system is clear from Judaism’s arguments against idolatry: when Israel betrays monotheism, Schwartz writes, the Jewish people is described as a woman with her legs spread.

Rather than abandon the tradition, however, Schwartz looks deeper into it, believing that we can reconfigure what no longer works. When Moses is first given the Ten Commandments, even before he can teach them, he throws the stones to the ground and breaks them to pieces. “The Torah itself must be rewritten,” Schwartz writes, and she praises the “fluid and proliferating” nature of Jewish law.

The necessity of transmitting a “living” Torah that speaks to and reflects our lives is further explored in Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life, edited by Rabbis Debra Orenstein and Jane Rachel Litman. “Repeating the story is a subversive act if done correctly,” says contributor Dianne Esses. Each of the 50 women—rabbis, writers and scholars—who contribute to this work (part two in a three part series) adds her own retelling to this quiet revolution. From the story of creation and the liberation of Exodus, through the blessings and prohibitions of Leviticus and onward through the texts, these writers tell how the stories of the Torah become their own. In the kitchen, in school, and on the front lines of social activism, they ask and answer questions like Amy Eilberg’s, “Where is God for you?”

Rachel Adler’s response is a particularly powerful one. As a young Orthodox woman, she had written articles strongly defending the practice of taharat ha’mishpochah, the purity laws regarding women and menstruation. Having previously noted the holiness Orthodoxy infuses into this symbolic cycle of death and rebirth, she now recants, seeing only an oppressive view of women’s bodies. In the process of this questioning, Adler returns to the value of the questioning itself.

Rebecca Aipert, author of Like Bread on a Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition, also calls for an expansion of what is considered Torah, in the truest sense of the word, “teaching.” Her allegiance to Judaism is not discouraged by the text in Leviticus that condemns lesbians as “treif” as bread during Passover. “We cannot simply excise the [troubling] biblical text or ignore it, because it contains precepts that define the very reasons that we remain connected to Judaism and the Jewish people in the first place.”

She begins with the notion that all of us, lesbian or straight, are created in God’s image. She denies that Judaism categorically condemns homosexuality, instead placing the prohibitions against “transgressive” sexuality in a historical context. The ban, she believes, was issued for particular reasons at a particular time, to distinguish the Jewish people from the Egyptians and their “idolatrous” sexual practices. To support this, she points to the sanctified love between Naomi and Ruth, and between Jonathan and David. Alpert links the story of Passover to coming out as gay or lesbian, from a place of oppression into freedom and community.

Outspoken women, transgressive women, women who stood up to God and were blessed for it, are also the central figures in Jonathan Kirsch’s The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible. He retells the stories of sexuality and violence rabbis and priests have suppressed, silenced, and edited into oblivion. Puzzling, challenging stories of women like Tamar, Zipporah, or Lot’s daughters are his starting points. He argues that these were women who used the only tools they had—their sexuality, ingenuity, or determination— to do what needed to be done.

In a tradition that links sexual immorality to idolatry, both metaphorically and literally, it is a true challenge to see the biblical harlot as hero. Writers like these open our eyes to a Torah that not only has room for all our varied voices, but demands their inclusion—a Torah in which, as Adler states, “[our] lives themselves are text.”

Sarah Wallis  is a writer living in San Francisco.