The midrashic impulse is the gift of modern Jewish women to biblical women, bringing them life and voice. It is thanks largely to feminism that midrash flourishes today.1 There are many reasons why this has happened. Since the mid-1970s, feminists have been reclaiming the canon, engaging in the rereading of texts that often omitted women's presence even as they inscribed our "essence."2 The canon—literary, philosophical, or religious—delineated women's proper role while defining us as irrational, passionate human beings. Religious feminists began to liberate the Jewish canon when they realized that the Bible is used to keep woman in her place by legitimating patriarchal power. Judith Plaskow writes of the power of midrash to remember, to invent, and to receive the "hidden half of Torah, reshaping Jewish memory to let women speak."3 The mainstream of rabbinic tradition depicts biblical women positively only if they are willing to assume the enabling roles of wife and/or mother.4 Since most mainstream midrashim present biblical women as being of marginal importance or place them in a negative light, there is a need for contemporary feminist midrash to change that image, to create role models for the next generation of women.
In Sarah Laughed: Modern Lessons from the Wisdom and Stories of Biblical Women,Vanessa Ochs gives the matriarchs a new life, using her own reinterpretations of the biblical text. Ochs, the author of Words on Fire (1991), is Director of Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia, where she teaches courses about Judaic traditions, Jewish spiritual journeys, Judaism, medicine, and healing, and women in Judaism. This reader was unprepared for the very [End Page 280] personal revelations in the introduction, in which Ochs relates how her new book came into being. This book is partly about positionality—about Ochs, where she is coming from, and where she wants the reader to go, based on her life experiences. She is quite transparent about how she "got religion"; and she has read her life back into her biblical characters and now advises us how to use the lessons thereby gained to get on with our own lives.
Ochs's particular journey has to do with a mysterious health problem that caused her debilitating and unrelenting pain over a two-year period. She concealed her illness and found the disguise almost as unbearable as the pain. At this crossroads in her life, she encountered the biblical Tamar, who had once stood at a crossroads, disguised as a prostitute, in order to entice her father-in-law, Judah, to sire a child with her in the stead of his dead sons Er and Onan. Ochs experienced an epiphanic moment, during which she "heard the voice of Tamar and what I understood her to be telling me." Tamar led her to understand that disguises may work, but they come at a price. Just as Tamar had to give up her disguise in order to save her life, so Ochs learned how to shed her identity as a woman who ostensibly was perfectly fine and functioning. Thus empowered by Tamar, Ochs was able to write the stories in this book.
The back cover tells us that "by learning about the gifts of these ancient women, you'll discover exhilarating ways to embrace your own personal gifts and gain fresh insight into: finding your inner wisdom, speaking your true self, being a good friend, maintaining romantic partnerships, raising a family, letting go of children, feeling blessed with a life well lived, and much more!" This statement positions the book's genre as New Age and its intended audience as those who are interested in self-help, a booming industry that offers us development of our potential and encouragement to look inward. Females in their fifties are big consumers of self-help guides, which purport to help create a new us. Very often such readers are well educated, with fulfilling jobs, but they feel that something is amiss. Whereas life in the past seemed to be...