22 August 2011

A Review: Jephte's Daughter, by Naomi Ragen

Naomi Ragen’s novel, Jephte’s daughter, is about a young Hassidic (Jewish ultra-orthodox) girl who is raised in the United States, and is arranged to marry a young Hassidic scholar in Jerusalem. She must leave everything she knows and loves to marry a man she has only just met. It sounds like a traditional set-up for—I don’t know—a romance novel or some such. (It’s an arranged marriage!!! But will it become true love?!? No.)

But this is not a romance novel (though there are some slightly extraneous romantic elements towards the end) and I suspect this isn’t the best way to introduce this novel, at any rate.

The title of this novel is derived from a story in the book of Judges. Jephte (Spelled Jephthah in my translation) makes a horrifying vow to God, that he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house if he is granted victory in battle. He is granted victory. His daughter is the first sight for his eyes as he approaches home. And he is duty bound to sacrifice her. She accepts her fate and asks only for time to mourn that she will die a virgin.

The parallels between the story of Jephte’s daughter and the protagonist of this novel—Batsheva Ha-Levi—are pretty explicitly drawn so I don’t think I’ll be ruining anything for potential readers by expounding upon that parallel.

Batsheva has been raised in wealth and relative isolation, for there are not many Hassidic Jews in the area of California where she lives and where her father is a very successful businessman. Batsheva is her parents’ only child and as such, she is cherished and spoiled. She has an outside tutor (a young gentile college student by the name of Elizabeth) who has introduced her to the sorts of literature that the average Hassidic girl would never see from a mile off (Women in Love and Lady Chatterly’s Lover have the most frequent mention.)

Batsheva is beautiful. She is happy. She is “ill-acquainted with the ways of the world”. She is full of life and she loves God.  She does not lament much the confines of her religious life—firstly because she knows nothing else, and secondly because her confines are few by comparison to others of her sect. She has a yearning and passionate and artistic mind. She struggles, she questions, but she always comes back to her center of faith in God.

        “She loved those instances in the Bible where people took flying leaps of faith headlong into the fearsome unknown and God was always there, like a good father.” (Pg 23)

          “…the more she learned to admire the skilled hand, the wise eye of the artists and photographers she loved, the more she began to perceive the world as a giant canvas and God as the greatest artist of all. So that later, when she finally learned about Darwin, the idea was as absurd and incomprehensible to her as the suggestion that the Mona Lisa had come about because a few cans of paint had accidentally tipped over and dripped their colors onto a chance canvas” (Pg 28)

She is also very much only 18 years old at the beginning of the novel, and becoming increasingly curious about things such as sex, intimacy and romantic love.

       “But God had looked at all of this, His ideas, His wonderful sense of color and design put into action and had said merely that it was good. Not great. Not fantastic. Just good. But when he had looked at man and woman together, He had said it was “very good.” So you could just imagine.” (Pg 35)

But Batsheva’s father, Abraham Ha-Levi, feels guilty. He is the direct descendant of a famous line of Hassidic Rabbis, but instead of devoting himself to the Talmud and a life of poverty, he thinks he has been too perfunctory about his Hassidism and has made an awful lot of money.

Herein lies the sacrifice. In order to devote to God what he feels he must, Batsheva’s father seeks out a husband—the aforementioned Hassidic scholar in Jerusalem—who will reestablish with Batsheva the famous Ha-Levi line. He figures Batsheva will marry this man, they will have great scholars for children, and Batsheva’s father will compensate for his youthful rebellion and his lack of study. He sacrifices her to a very different life than she has known—and to a man she does not know—to ease his guilt.

I should mention that Naomi Ragen’s inspiration for this novel was the instance of a real life Hassidic woman who committed a homicide-suicide (she took her small child with her). Ragen wished to investigate the experiences and emotional state of someone who would do such a horrible thing.

So, be warned. Her marriage is not a good one. And this brings me to one of the most well-executed aspects of this story: Isaac Harshen. He is the husband and, without giving away too much, he is the cause of Batsheva’s emotional and psychological distress. He is essentially the villain of the piece.

But here is where I must truly commend Ragen. Even though I knew that Isaac would be the source of trouble at the out-set of the novel, I still hoped he would mend, hoped he would grow, saw chances for redemption and even understood (did not agree with, but could comprehend) many of his reactions. He starts out as a young, intelligent, handsome man who also knows very little of the world.

But he knows much of his world. In his community in Jerusalem he is well-thought-of and pious and shrewd. He knows, ultimately, how to wield his world against Batsheva.

Ragen does not make Isaac sympathetic in the strictest sense—he grows blatantly cruel—but she makes solid sense of the progression of his thoughts and behaviors. He’s not just unkind because the story needed him to be. You can see exactly how he got that way and why he chooses as he does. You can see it happening with chilling realism right before your eyes. When she describes the “hardening of his heart,” so to speak, towards Batsheva you can (or at least I can) recognize that same mode of thought in some past instance in my life. You know, that time you had both remorse and contempt as options and you saw some faint justification for the contempt and you chose it. Or the decision to capitalize on a miscommunication or on semantics to your own benefit. I’ve known myself to sometimes do the things the Isaac does, and that is scary…and an important truth to recognize—that we have that in ourselves.

From the point of Batsheva’s marriage, the story takes many a twist and turn (and indeed does some things I did not anticipate) and it consists of both good prose and a compelling story. I had to remind myself to look up at the subway stops to make sure I didn’t miss mine while I was reading this, I was so engrossed.

The book has rotating perspectives, giving liberty to drop into postitively anyone’s mind at any time, which I enjoyed. I don’t always like being restricted to one mind for hundreds of pages. It’s a personal preference. I have my own mind to deal with, don’t I? Plus it makes the characters more real, rather than just passing shadows viewed through a young girl’s eyes.

Therefore I would also like to mention a few of the other significant characters, some of whose roles in the story are best left undiscussed if you intend to read this.

The aforementioned gentile tutor. She is not much older than Batsheva, but wiser in the ways of the world—at least, in theory. Sadly she makes all the mistakes a girl in her position (young, smart, beautiful, passionate) ought not to make. There is a sub-plot of her involvement with a professor, but it is not superfluous. It is present to show-case the fact that, for all her freedom by comparison to Batsheva and other Hassids, she is still suffering and the choices she makes do not necessarily bring her happiness. She becomes disgusted with herself, and disillusioned with her lover.

Ultimately Elizabeth is a sweetheart, but never as riveting a character as Batsheva because she doesn’t seem to believe in anything. She’s just ‘awful nice.’ She is treated well by the narrative, but in a novel that acknowledges the centrality of God, that just doesn’t cut it. She’s an aimless sweetheart.

Professor MacLeish:
Pretty much a suave, pretentious jerk. His characterization is not as deep as Isaac Harshen’s, but it doesn’t need to be. He’s pretty peripheral. His primary purpose in the story is to provide a parallel to Isaac. To show that, just as Isaac adheres to the rituals and rules of his faith yet truly has no faith, Professor MacLeish adheres to the rhetoric and philosophies of his field of study, but has grown completely disillusioned with it. He carries on with the tune having lost the beat and any semblance of purpose.

My absolute favorite section of the story consists of David’s struggle with God. David is preparing for priesthood in the Catholic church (a priest? What? I thought we were doing this story in a Hassidic neighborhood in Jerusalem! How did we get to a British Priest-in-training? Don’t worry about it.) He is struggling for his faith, struggling against God and ends up going on a trip to Israel to study the Bible and figure things out.

His struggle culminates in, perhaps, the most compelling passage in the whole book.
Note: Jacob is my favorite character in the Bible. The one with whom I can most relate. The passage shows David hiking out to the Desert and having it out with God—wrestling for His blessing. Even though I don’t agree with every single one of this character’s conclusions at the culmination of this scene, it is still very powerful and his story and struggles resonated with me in a way I cannot quite describe.

And The Rest:
There are some interesting arguments presented throughout the latter portion of the book, particularly interesting for someone familiar with both Judaism and Christianity. For instance, many Christians struggle with God’s wrath and the harshness in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) while finding Jesus’ message of love and faith a little easier to grasp (if not easy to live). A lot of people see the Old Testament and the New as the "wounding then healing" aspects of God, respectively.

Yet in this novel the opposite perspective is introduced, which I found interesting and ironic in light of the aforementioned:

       “Even “Love they neighbor as thyself,” that which he had always believed the most Christian of ideas, that, too, was written plainly in the Hebrew texts given to Moses. In many ways, its words seemed to bring him closer to the goodness and holiness he had always searched for than the harsh words of the new..., “Think not I have come to bring peace. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Pg 375)

Curiously, though Christian myself, I have always had an easier time breathing in the Old Testament than the new, for various reasons. I believe both are the word of God, but the latter is sometimes much harder for me to grasp. I just think it interesting to note, that some things that are ‘the easy part’ for some, are ‘the hard part’ for others. I’m also glad that the text pointed out some important things that Christians often forget:

        “He had been taught, had he not, that Jesus said, “I come not to change the Law, but to strengthen and verify it.” But it had never occurred to him, never seemed important to him, that Jesus himself came of Jewish parents, and the law he spoke of was the same law of the Jews.” (Pg. 375)

Vital information, if you ask me.

Anyhow, the conclusion of the story actually appeals to my affinity for blood-ties, although an opposite experience than that of a certain converting character can be found in real life in the form of Lauren Winner who wrote about her conversion from Orthodox Judaism (to which she originally converted from Reform Synagogue-going childhood.) to Christianity.  Her book, "Girl Meets God" is also highly recommended.


I like that this is written about religion from the perspective of one who actually understands it, yet not for the religious shelves. Ragen intends a critique of many aspects of the Hassidic lifestyle, but she does not explicate hatefully. Nor does she give up on it all. Batsheva loves God. She believes in Him. She’s not written as a caricature of a religious person, which is rare when encountering a character found on, say, a shelf marked something other than religious fiction. That love and belief drips off the pages in a way that speaks to those who understand the language of faith. Since I don’t generally read stuff from the “Religious/Christian fiction” shelf I’ve been pretty hard up to find fiction that portray people of faith as anything but caricatures, nut-jobs or plot-devices. I intend to read many more Naomi Ragen books.


  1. That last paragraph reminded me suddenly of a certain day, in which we were at Barnes & Noble...and looking in the faith fiction section, and having a bit too much fun...
    I remember you mentioning this book a while back, but now I want to read it too.

  2. "He loves God...but he's mad about it! And therefore he must make a brooding face." While some chick's skirt flutters in the background. In a field of wheat or something.

    Oh man, Shannon, thems was some good times.
    Anyhow, I had a feeling you might take a shine to the premise of this book. I do think you would like it...and hey, isn't next month September?

  3. I'd love to read about a man who "sit's upon eggs to hatch them", don't know what God has to do with that though... ;)

  4. Okay, Brandi I stared at your comment for an age before I understood what you meant and started laughing. Eggs, what? Hatch, huh? Oh. Brooding. Chick. Got it.

    Shannon and I were at the store mocking the covers of the books in the religious section (Is that wrong?) and it is to that which I referred.

  5. I know, I was just teasing you...the word brooding struck me as funny at that time...I think you guys can make fun of religious novel's anytime!

  6. I want to read this! Thanks James. I have a hard time having a... forgiving may I say... attitude toward such religious books too.

  7. You know, this reminds me: I was reading a discussion a while ago about the 'sectioning' of books and how sometimes it seems as though it is used to disadvantage certain author groups under the guise of making them easier to find. The discussion was completely secular...in fact it was talking about race...where there was an "African-American interest" section and the style of books ranged so wildly that it was downright silly to place all those books together simply because their authors were of the same race.

    So while the subject matter is actually quite different--because what I just mentioned is a bookstore's decision, whereas Christian publishing is self-segregated--it's detrimental regardless. It means you have to make the distinction between "Christian fiction" and a piece of fiction that happens to be written by a Christian.

    So any religious fiction OTHER than Christian, gets placed normally where it would belong (Naomi Ragen's was on the normal fiction shelf), unless of course it's 'canon', like Lewis. It just puts Christian writers in a fix. They want to publish through a regular publishing company so as to be taken seriously, so as to reach a wider audience and so as to not get regulated to THAT category...yet if they have too many specific religious elements in their book, secular publishes will point them to Christian publishers. Then the Christian publishers would never take them if they don't adhere to the very specific requirements of Christian fiction. Comes off like a catch-22, though I refuse to believe it's insurmountable.