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  • Introduction
  • Vanessa L. Ochs (bio)

For years, I have been studying the spiritual journey as a literary genre. The Jewish spiritual journey, female or male, fictional or autobiographical, is typically distinct from the Christian one, which is so much more familiar that it is often mistaken to be generic. The Jewish spiritual journey, by comparison, is rarely a story about being lost and then found. It is not a story about a hero who leaves home and family behind, travels courageously, fights obstacles in order to reach a high place where illumination is granted, and then returns home, It is not a story of sinning and waywardness relinquished for once and for all by means of penance, goodness, and rectitude. It is not a story of being banished from God, or being oblivious to God's presence, followed by a warm and mutual embrace.

Jewish spiritual journeys, as Steven Kepnes once described in the context of Martin Buber's reflections, are more typically about a series of sacred encounters, "turnings" actually, between the self and God; the self and others; the self and the community; and the self and Torah, understood as both text and as evolving transgenerational conversation. Some encounters "take," so to speak; others are bungled. Rather than following a clear path toward enlightenment, the Jewish spiritual journey commences afresh each day with opportunities for sacred encounter. Unlike the hero who sallies forth alone into the future, the Jewish journeyer sallies back and forth and in cycles, shuttling between mythic and historical time, wandering—with and towards God—in the company of ancestors, neighbors, family, and people. The Jewish journey is often about what one actually does, as opposed to what one believes, commits to, or understands.

The spiritual journey engages me because I am riveted by the messy practice of living a life according to sacred beliefs, rituals, and texts. I am intrigued by the ways that individuals, communities, and sub-communities negotiate with the legacies and constraints of inherited religious traditions and go about establishing new facts on the ground in both public and private spheres. I want [End Page 5] to know about religious life as it really is, and not how it ought to be, or how it was in the mythic past.

Scholarship in religions has generally emphasized formal articulation of tenets of faith, guidelines for ideal practice, and venerated readings of the cannon. Because of my own interests, I am heartened that the lived creative struggle to arrange life—one's own, or that of others, inside and around an inherited religious tradition, done artfully or artlessly, done continuously or in fits and starts—is slowly finding its way, more often, into scholarly discourse. (In Judaism, it is the work of anthropologist Barbara Meyerhoff that has led the way; in Catholicism, it is Robert Orsi; Princeton University Press now publishes a series of texts that emphasize what they call religion "in practice."1 ) I believe it is scholarship in women's studies that has given us both the tools and the permission to engage in studies that privilege how religions are actually lived, sustained, tweaked, and transformed, as opposed to studies that concern themselves with how religions are lived theoretically, according to some ideal, and what they ought really to mean.

In most faiths, while one's spiritual journey may be guided or legislated by inherited tradition and clergy, it is ultimately experienced privately or in small groups. The intimate spiritual experiences of Jewish men have long been accessible to us, as they have been transmitted through written interpretations of sacred texts, written debates about Jewish communal religious practice, and liturgies and rituals created, codified, and disseminated by men. Of male spirituality, we have evidence aplenty.

In this issue of Nashim we are privileged to engage in the work of deeply discerning a broad range of spiritual experiences of Jewish women. Because of the large and excellent response to our call for papers, it is the first of two issues to be devoted to Jewish women's spirituality.

Our contributors, both American and Israeli, study the spirituality of Jewish women as it has emerged in history and in the contemporary period, and...


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