More Than Meets The Eye
February 29, 2004
On a recent trip to the Montague Book Mill, I picked up a paperback copy of Vanessa Ochs' Words on Fire: One Woman's Journey Into the Sacred. When the book begins, Ochs is living in an upstate New York college town, experiencing mysterious recurring ailments. She decides that her illnesses are due to her leading an "unsanctified" life, and when a sabbatical opportunity opens up for her husband, she engages in a year of intensive study in Jerusalem, trying to gain access to Judaism's central sacred texts.
To me, the mysterious-ailment part of the story felt tacked-on, as though Ochs needed to justify to her readers (and to herself) why she was tackling Talmud in midlife. Especially given how alienating she finds old chestnuts like "The words of the Torah should be burnt rather than be taught to women." (That's courtesy of Talmudic rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus.)
I find lines like that one alienating, too. (How could I not?) And I'm always interested in a good chronicle of spiritual searching, especially one by a woman searching for her place in Judaism. So I expected to love this book.
I didn't, quite. Ochs' journey felt muddled to me. I understand that real life is messy, and suspect Ochs made the conscious decision to mirror the complications of lived experience in her book. As a result, though, it was hard for me to follow the meanderings of Ochs' path. I expected the three-step arc: 1) begin feeling distant from Judaism, 2) spend the year in Israel connecting with teachers and texts, and 3) come home changed. And although that's mostly what happens, the trajectory isn't as clear as I wanted it to be. Sometimes it seems her preexisting frustrations with Judaism keep her from connecting with it; often it seems she can't figure out how to reconcile her longstanding exasperations with her newfound interest. She wants to be in love with Judaism, but her modernity keeps getting in the way.
Remember the poem about the blind men and the elephant? (It's actually based on a Buddhist sutra.) Judaism can be like that: if you're reaching out to touch Orthodoxy, you'll get a completely different shape than if you're reaching out to touch Jewish Renewal. It frustrated me to watch Ochs grapple with the sexism of Orthodoxy without ever engaging with the other points on the denominational spectrum.
These frustrations aside, though, there was also a lot I enjoyed about Words on Fire. Ochs certainly doesn't flinch from portraying the ugly underbelly of Jewish anti-feminism, historically or in the present-day, and I appreciate that even as it makes me squirm. She also has an excellent eye for detail and a deft hand with characterization; I came away feeling that I knew many of the book's characters personally, from "Esther" (perennially producing new children, studying Torah in between diaperings) to teachers Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg and Chana Safrai.
One of the book's most poignant vignettes, to me, comes near the end. Ochs and her husband are celebrating Shabbat with two young men who are new to Judaism. Ochs describes the tableau of the three men studying. And then she enters the tableau, perching on the kitchen counter, and says to the men, "This text, new as it is to you, is totally yours. Imagine what it feels like for me knowing I have to edit or ignore chunks of sacred texts. Imagine if you read in Ethics of the Fathers: Don't chat with men, they're ninnies. Would either of you have chosen to ally yourself with a group that treated your sex with such disdain?" The men cannot answer; Ochs becomes uncomfortable, realizing that she's been confrontational, but can't seem to stop the words from leaving her mouth.
That passage epitomizes both what I liked about this book and what I didn't. I like Ochs' honesty, her willingness to wrangle with what's difficult in Judaism. But I get exasperated watching her run repeatedly into the wall of Judaism's sexism, because I don't think that sexism is necessarily one of Judaism's defining factors. I wish Ochs had examined the whole Jewish spectrum: if not for herself personally, then at least for her readers, to show that there's more to this elephant than meets one blind man's eye.