If you were cast away on an island with just one Jewish text for company, which would you choose?
This week, Sybil A Sheridan of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis, selects: The Women of Israel by Grace Aguilar
The Women of Israel by Grace Aguilar was published in 1844. I have a copy dated 1845 and I would love this particular version on my island, so I could not only enjoy its contents but also marvel at the beauty of its leather binding, which remains surprisingly intact.
Aguilar (1816 to 1847) wrote novels, and religious works aimed at the instruction and improvement of Jewish women. The Women of Israel was an attempt to provide role models and sources of inspiration in a period when very little had been written about the Bible’s women and Jewish history. Women, she believed were the foundation of the family, who provided the comfort, instruction and spiritual direction of the home. They needed to know of their foremothers.
The Women of Israel focuses largely on the Bible and the post-biblical period — and a look forward to the Messianic Age.
She elaborates the stories in a lively and imaginative way that tells us more about the situation for women in her own time. When she writes about Eve, she says: “She had broken through the barrier at which the words of the serpent seemed suddenly of iron, it so degraded her by its harshness and injustice. She was independent, had acted by herself, had shaken off all control; and the full tide of guilty pleasure, so swept over her soul as to permit for the moment, no thought but of herself…”.
I first discovered the book 40 years ago, when I was studying to become a rabbi. Today there are Orthodox women also becoming rabbis. In the absence of contemporary role models, I am sure they would find this book as much an inspiration as I did.