WORDS ON FIRE: One Woman's Journey into the Sacred by Vanessa L. Ochs

WORDS ON FIRE: One Woman's Journey into the Sacred

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Does the Orthodox Jewish tradition have a place for women who study the Torah not just as an academic exercise but as a means of coming closer to God? Ochs (who has taught writing at Yale, Colgate, and elsewhere) set out to answer this question in a yearlong sojourn in Jerusalem. Whereas men are enjoined to study the Torah constantly, even to the exclusion of their families and livelihoods, women have traditionally been forbidden to approach sacred texts lest they distract men by their presence and thereby contaminate their holy pursuits. Many women, therefore, have undertaken the study of sacred texts, Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud, on their own, in all-female (or mostly) institutions and study groups. Ochs' personal quest for sanctity brought her into contact with renowned female Torah scholars and teachers of many opinions, but none was ultimately able to reconcile the relegation of women to the role of priestess of home life and vessel of procreation with the study of sacred texts. Although women have proven their intellectual ability to master the material, their sincerity and dedication are not sufficient to lend a sacred aura to their activities. Ochs reluctantly and sadly concludes that the separation of sexual roles is a cornerstone of the Orthodox idea of the holy and that Orthodox women must seek sanctity within those roles as defined in the sacred texts themselves. Of appeal largely to women who feel dissatisfied and unfulfilled studying the Torah in a university or other purely intellectual setting. Ochs' account of her quest is both thoughtful and sobering.

Pub Date: May 29th, 1990
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich