February 08

Ostriker Reviewed

Cheryl Goldstein

Alicia Ostriker, For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book
Rutgers University Press, 2007

During my relatively brief sojourn in rabbinical school I learned, among any number of things, some good jokes. One of these involved a conversation between God and Moses, who is trying to understand the thrice-repeated Torahic command, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” There has to be a reason for the repetitions, right? According to the joke, each time God repeats the commandment, Moses comes up with an additional elaboration on kashrut — separate pots and pans for milk and meat, separate plates and silverware, separate dishwashers — until, after Moses’ third elaboration, God responds in exasperation, “Fine! Have it your way.”

This joke tells us something about the attitudes that we Jews take toward our texts, not the least of which is a sense that we have a right to take on the Bible (or Mishnah, or Talmud), to be engaged with it, and even to make it mean what we believe it should mean. Both the midrashic and halachic traditions question the validity of authorial intent, even when the author is assumed to be God. In fact, we take the struggle with our central texts so seriously that we have codified compilations of objections.

But it’s crucial to note that these debates aren’t conducted for the sake of the individual. Moses, for example, is not a symbolic “everyman,” and the Hillel/Shammai debates in the Talmud represent interpretive schools, not two oppositional readers. It’s also important to keep in mind that these contestations with authority, whether strictly literary or legal, illustrate a kind of creative containment wherein the limitations are as important as the innovations. Think of the sonnet as opposed to free verse. The objective is not to do away with the form, but to find liberation within the limitations. This same sense of restriction is what makes rabbinic commentaries so vibrant and innovative.

And yet an unwillingness to submit to these limitations characterizes Alicia Ostriker’s readings in For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book. Ostriker, poet, literary critic and “midrashist,” offers her readings of six books — Song of Songs, The Book of Ruth, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Jonah, and Job — as a response to the “literalists and fundamentalists” who have “pinned down the Maker. Have caged the Creator.” As the first part of her title implies, Ostriker’s readings represent the complex response that comes with commitment and familiarity: a deep, abiding and motivating love for Bible inextricably linked to a certain frustration with the ways the text is used. Her subtitle, The Bible as an Open Book, hints at Ostriker’s agenda. It’s not that the Bible is open for us (seek and ye shall find), but that it is open to us, available to accept whatever we bring to it, from personal experiences to secular literary references.

When these readings are motivated by Ostriker’s desire to speak from a specifically female experience, her readings are often persuasive. For example, Ostriker’s frustration with the common emphasis upon biblical passages that highlight violence and revenge over those that champion love, compassion or self-reflection underlies her choices and her readings. By beginning with a discussion of the erotically charged Song of Songs, followed by what she reads as the pastoral and romantic (perhaps even proto-chivalric) Book of Ruth, Ostriker jumps in with both feet. She revels in the powerful feminine voices and erotic imagery of these books and finds in Song of Songs “an alternative story of voluntary love and pleasure,” one that delights in the feminine and the sensual. The mutually consensual love the book describes suggests an analogy between sexual and spiritual surrender for Ostriker, one that allows deep spiritual union, while her reading of Ruth illustrates how “eros and ethics join[…].” Reading Ruth as a pastoral, in counterpoint to the war narratives in Judges, Ostriker notes that the book allows for “an erasure of the boundary between one’s own people and the enemy.” She emphasizes the pastoral nature of this piece, pointing out the way it links fecundity, love and ethics, and suggesting that the tradition provides an alternative to the aggressive, divisive, and male dominated narratives of Judges. Like the erasure of the barrier between the physical and the spiritual worlds in Song of Songs, the removal of boundaries here is linked to a female protagonist, and Ostriker takes comfort in these books, finding in them fertile ground for the female spirit.

These are compelling interpretations, and Ostriker’s desire to read these books as women’s stories merits our attention. By focusing on the feminine, Ostriker insists that their content be taken seriously and that, by extension, the role of Jewish women be taken seriously— not merely for the sake of a modern accommodation but because there’s scriptural precedent. Thus she does “open” and expand the Bible here. This approach is compromised, though, when she invokes personal associations and memories. In these cases, it isn’t the Bible that opens up, but Ostriker. In these moments the “revealed text” is Ostriker herself, while the Bible becomes incidental, one of a number of equally important influences in the process of self-revelation.

Indeed, this interjection of the personal is at the very heart of Ostriker’s book, as evidenced in her chapter on Psalms. Prompted to turn to Psalms for solace after September 11th, Ostriker describes her response as intensely emotional and contradictory, a mixture of love and hate. Her readings of these poems, though she only addresses a few, are admittedly sensitive and evocative, explaining how they appeal to universal and timeless human emotions, even our less than noble ones. But Ostriker is less insightful about the psalms that seek vengeance or fantasize about violent revenge. Instead of tackling these emotions, which many peacefully inclined people felt after September 11th, Ostriker only offers us her own poetry.

Three male-oriented books—Ecclesiastes, Jonah, and Job—don’t evoke the personal connections that Ostriker relies upon in earlier chapters. The results are uneven: of these three readings, the piece on Ecclesiastes is the least compelling. Ostriker points out the ambiguous nature of much of Qohelet, and her discussion of the various meanings of hevel is informative; but ultimately this discussion lacks the freshness and conviction of her readings of Song of Songs and The Book of Ruth. Her reading of Jonah also seems emotionally detached, providing summaries of the book’s chapters and attempts at psychological insights that aren’t particularly convincing.

In her treatment of Job, Ostriker returns to more creative reading. Her presentation of the book’s structure and its story are fairly straightforward, but her discussion of the book’s two endings provides her more to work with, as does the poetry at Job’s center. Women re-emerge as well, with Ostriker’s intriguing consideration of Job’s wife, an almost invisible presence in the text, and with her reference to the dual creation stories in Genesis. The universal question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” invites personal reflection; however, in this case the personal can stand as an example for the communal.

Coincidentally, at the end of the book Ostriker cites a rabbinic story that is a more serious version of the joke I learned in rabbinical school. It is a Talmudic legend recalling an argument between Rabbis Joshua and Eleazar representing liberal and conservative schools of interpretation respectively. Eleazar asks God to perform a series of mini-miracles to validate his reading, and miracles are performed. But R. Joshua and his colleagues, unconvinced, respond that the Torah is on earth, not in heaven, that interpretative control is a human affair. Upon hearing this, God declares Joshua victorious saying, “My children have defeated me.” God speaks of his “children,” here not his “child.” The recognition of the plurality here should not go without notice. The Bible is our “Book,” but that doesn’t mean it’s a book it will be about “me.” Maybe that is a sensibility we also need to be open to.



Cheryl Goldstein is a Assistant Professor of Comparative World Literature at Cal State University, Long Beach. She is currently working researching the impact of exile and displacement and their representation in modern Hebrew literature. She currently lives in Los Angeles.