Jews and Words

By Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger

Yale University Press, 2012, 248 pages


Neither Amos Oz, a famous Israeli novelist and literary scholar, nor his daughter Fania Oz-Salberger, a historian, authors of this informative book, believes in the existence of God. Their attachment to Judaism is cultural: “There is not a religious bone in our bodies.” The Bible is a human creation, “breathtaking” and “splendid” literature.


Words, they write, are more important to Judaism than places and people. Their serious but frequently playful book, emphasizes education as the key element in Jewish culture. Jews, they stress, have always insisted on educating their children from an early age.  Despite frequent persecutions, Judaism is maintained by books that are taught and read in schools, family tables, and alone.


They discuss many subjects; “women” is one of them. In the biblical book “Song of Songs by Salomon,” the Hebrew word translated “by” is asher. This word could mean “to” here, and the passage would read, “The song that I will sing to Salomon.” This avoids the perplexing question: Is it reasonable to suppose that King Salomon wrote this love poem and two other books ascribed to him with different world views? True, Jewish sages say that he wrote one in his youth reflecting youthful interests, one in middle age, and one when he was old. But by understanding asher as “to,” one can argue that this love poem, was composed by a woman expressing love to Salomon. This is one of many female contributions to Judaism.


The two highlight dozens of biblical instances where women play decisive roles. The prophetess Deborah, for example, had to encourage a male to lead the army against Israel’s enemy, and he refused to go unless she joined him. It is even easy to see Eve being more proactive than her husband Adam.


True, those who prefer to set women in a second place position refer to their interpretation of Psalm 45:14, “All the glory of the king’s daughter is within” – women belong at home – but these advocates read the passage out of context. The verse is speaking about the jewelry, clothes, and other precious items that Salomon’s foreign brides, some princesses, brought with them to his kingdom when he married them. They had this rich “glory” at home. Besides, the Bible is teeming with examples of Israelite women outside the home and in the streets.


Another restriction placed on women by many ultra-Orthodox Jews is their insistence that women not sing in the presence of men because their voice is enticing. This claim, of course, says more about their problem than about women. There is no biblical rule forbidding men listening to female singing. Also, biblical figures didn’t have this concern. II Samuel, for instance, states that Barzillai, a priest of King David, lamented that he is too old to enjoy female singing as he would like to do. Exodus reports that Moses’ sister Miriam with other women sang, and Moses didn’t insist that the men stuff their ears.


Oz and Oz-Salzberger analyze the lives of dozens of biblical women and show their praiseworthy strengths, such as Miriam who saved her brother Moses, while “her father and brother may have been out for a drink.” They also tell how the biblical portrayal of women is far more positive than the disapproving depiction of ladies in Greek mythology and theater. They show the need for the ultra-Orthodox to return to biblical Judaism.