Not long ago, a woman rabbi raised a provocative question: Might we dare imagine Judaism as it would be if the tradition had been shaped and transmitted by feminists? Or to put it differently, how is Judaism experienced through the mind/body of a spiritually attuned woman?
Tova Reich’s “One Hundred Philistine Foreskins” (Counterpoint) explores this essential question through the lifelong travails of its central character, Ima Temima, a prophetic guru and iconoclast teacher of our times. The novel moves between Temima’s life as a charismatic spiritual leader in Israel and her brutally isolating girlhood in ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn. At age 11, already a voracious reader and original thinker, Temima is shattered by the death of her mother and left to the brutish cruelty of her father. Her school principal, whom she encounters lurking among the reeking garbage in the building’s basement, subjects her to sexual abuse. She withdraws into study and deep contemplation, seeking sanctuary at her mother’s grave. A few years later, Temima uses a marriage of convenience to a Zionist zealot who works at the neighborhood deli as a ticket to Israel, where she eventually makes her name as a visionary leader.
The book opens with a tumultuous, end-of-days scene in which Temima and her mob of followers — “a mixed multitude of hanger-ons and groupies, assorted fans and freaks and misfits” — are winding their way through the streets of Jerusalem, with the aged, veiled Temima, hidden like the divine presence in a portable arc, transported by four hefty bodyguards. The raucous scene, like those vividly rendered throughout the book, is set in cinematic detail. The throngs are “dancing, stamping their feet, twirling, clapping their hands, swaying, many bearing musical instruments, drums, tambourines, rattles, bells, roaring, ululating, whooping, chanting the Te-Tem-Ima-Temima-from-Brooklyn mantra.”
Reich delights in blurring the lines between devotion and dementia, inspiration and opportunism, spiritual questing and the festering danger of cultish extremes. The many allusions to the fractious contemporary scene make us uneasy: This may be fiction, and to be sure, at times it is wildly hyperbolic, yet it is all too frighteningly real.
The novel plunges us into a teeming universe of devotees, many of whom Temima has rescued from degradation, much as she has risen from despair. All around Temima there swirls a sea of despised husbands and charismatic lovers, children she has forsaken, beloved women soul mates and furious opponents whose barbs and threats serve to sharpen her vision. The Hebrew, allusive names of characters like Aish Zara (Foreign Flame), Kol Isha Erva (Naked Woman’s Voice), the Toiter (the Dying One) and Abba Kodesh (Holy Father) indicate destinies in a world drenched with meta-meaning.
Temima takes on the title Ba’alat Ov, or Mistress of the Ovary, intending it as “a respectful nod to yet another of her beloved Tanakhi women, the Witch of Endor, mistress of the ov … with the power to raise familiar spirits and ghosts.” With this name, Temima “was sticking a finger in the eyes of the establishment religious leaders, all men, who considered her an aberration and an abomination, a freak and a menace — a witch and a sorceress.”
The book delights in a cornucopia of stunning, if relatively obscure, biblical references. The title “One Hundred Philistine Foreskins” refers to the “brideprice” of the princess Mikhal, though we are reminded that David, her love-struck suitor, brings her father King Saul twice that many, since “he liked to do things big … to make a splash.” But Reich draws attention to the sorry fate that awaited even a princess. “How much bitterness and loathing and alienation must have encrusted the heart of this degraded woman as she stood years later at the window, a prisoner of the harem, staring down at David in his triumph.”
The feminist teachings offered through Temima — most biblical, some brilliant, many bordering on the blasphemous — are meant to provoke. She proposes that it was God who fathered Isaac through Sarah, playing with possible meanings of the Hebrew word “pakad” (visit), thus offering a radical explanation for Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice that son despite Sarah’s heartbreak. She questions whether Rachel ever really loved Jacob even if the patriarch was fixated on who he imagined her to be. Temima rages at God for spreading His own disease when spitting in Miriam’s face and making her a leper.
In the style of Reich’s earlier works like “My Holocaust: A Novel” and “The Jewish War,” her new book is a torrential, if finely tuned, assault on the sanctimonious. Most of all, “One Hundred Philistine Foreskins” is a passionate polemic against the religiously sanctioned mistreatment of women. The crusading Temima exposes a vast panorama of unpunished violence against women in the sacred texts. She asks rhetorically, “Are there truly some things left that have never happened in Israel?” As the book goes on, we fear the answer, helas, is no.
Despite the frequent hyperbolic humor, there is something radically discomforting at the heart of this tale. Temima and a disciple hear the silenced cries of abused Jewish women everywhere, through all time. “Their cries have reached Me, I have seen how they are oppressed,” they say in language borrowed from Exodus. Even as we cannot bear the description of “degradation curled up on the floor, one hand tugging her headscarf forward … the other shielding her face, slashed and swollen,” we know that Temima’s inner vision is pure. She leaves the unsightly truth strewn across the road to redemption, “ticking away like a time bomb,” one that we ignore at our own peril.
Is this a sprawling social satire or a personal saga? The book’s strength and its weakness derive from its accommodation of both genres. Temima’s powers draw from something beyond herself, but the biographical underpinnings suggest that woman expands her religious consciousness when the bonds of oppression cut savagely into her own flesh.
Ultimately, it is Temima’s vulnerability rather than her erudite sarcasm or expanded consciousness that most engages the reader. Throughout we might well wonder why she abandons her own children or couples with such off-putting men. When we learn in more detail of her mother’s death and the miseries she endured as a child, the psychological portrait of a woman as a bereft spiritual leader acquires emotional truth.
Reich is suggesting that for women, religious seeking is a form of post-traumatic self-soothing, and in the end, that Orthodox patriarchy has traumatized us all. In the feminist framework, devotion is a quest for personal healing; Temima as an elderly sage loops back to her most intimate yearnings. “But what if the messiah is a woman — a mother? Therein lies true salvation. It is for our mother we always cry out in the darkest night … for we are sick with love and she will never forsake us.” ✹
Susan Reimer-Torn, is a writer who blogs at susanrtorn.wordpress.com. Her memoir, “Not Such a Good Girl,” will appear in the fall of 2013.