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An Odyssey Into the Garden of Learning : WORDS ON FIRE: One Woman's Journey Into the Sacred; by Vanessa Ochs Harcourt Brace Jovanovich $28.95, 328 pp.

December 29, 1990|RUTH BROYDE-SHARON | Filmmaker and journalist Sharon lived in Israel for 10 years and now resides in Los Angeles. This summer she was called up to read the Torah, by a female rabbi of the Conservative movement. and

What is more desirable than forbidden fruit? Allowed the taste of every tree but the tree of knowledge, Eve -- as the story goes -- could not resist the temptation to sample the forbidden fruit and, as the story continues, she and her partner-in-crime, Adam, were summarily thrown out of Paradise.

Though thousands of years have passed, the modern-day Eve, if she happens to be an Orthodox Jew and especially if she resides in Israel, is still an outcast, for the sacred texts of the Torah are forbidden to her. Author Vanessa Ochs spent a year in Israel and wrote "Words on Fire" to document her frustrations and indignation at the meager opportunities available for women who want to study the Torah in the original and in depth, as their male counterparts have been doing for centuries.

"A Jew's understanding of the nature of God," Ochs writes, "of how to fulfill God's will, of how to behave and worship, of the past and future history of the universe are all contained in the Torah." She quotes from the Ethics of the Fathers, which enjoins men to "delve into the Torah and

But if Jews are called the people of the book, they mean men of the book, not women, she insists.

An ardent feminist and a literature teacher, Ochs wanted, like the character in Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Yentl," not to be a man, but to touch and taste, hear and smell the sacred text that Jews have preserved and protected, loved and honored since time immemorial.

Her title, "Words on Fire," comes from a quote from Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who wrote at the turn of the 2nd Century: "The words of the Torah should be burnt rather than taught to women."

For Jewish feminists, that is a call to battle.

True, as Ochs points out, eight centuries later the great Torah scholar, Maimonides, elaborated upon this point and softened the interdiction, indicating that not all women's learning was forbidden -- certainly not oral Torah (the teaching and interpretations of the rabbis) -- only written Torah.

In our own century, Rabbi Baruch Epstein has written: "Girls do not have intellectual ability and are therefore unable to make profound inquiries with a sharp mind and appreciate the depth of Torah. It is possible that by using their own minds, they will transgress the will of Torah."

Ochs is outraged, as most modern women would be upon reading this. "The voices of these sages ... echo each other. They offend, humiliate and demean me," she writes.

While her husband and children are busy with their studies in Israel, Ochs searches the history books for records of Orthodox Jewish women who ignored the prohibition and found ways to study the Torah and even become respected Torah scholars. There were so few, she discovers to her dismay, that they can be counted on one hand.

So Ochs abandons the history books and begins a living search. She does indeed find some exceptional women who not only study from the sacred text but have launched study groups, seminars and schools to teach other women.

Although the book begins slowly, unfolds gingerly, and at times suffers from a lack of momentum, as Ochs penetrates more deeply into the forbidden territories of learning her prose becomes more urgent, her voice more lyrical.

In her personal odyssey to find these women, to learn the Torah from them, Ochs defines and refines her own identity as a woman, a Jew and a scholar.

Must woman be exiled twice, first from the Garden of Eden and then from the garden of learning? One woman's journey into the sacred becomes every woman's search for equality and mastery.

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