Renegade scholar finds biblical Thelma and Louise

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But then, author Rachel Havrelock calls herself a "renegade scholar."

Armed with only a bachelor's degree in Hebrew and American literature, this 24-year-old San Franciscan has, with one of her former U.C. Santa Cruz professors, co-authored a fresh examination of the female experience in the Bible.

"Writing this book overturned all my assumptions about Judaism and feminism," Havrelock said.

Released this spring, "Women on the Biblical Road: Ruth, Naomi, and the Female Journey" is Havrelock's first book and Professor Mishael Caspi's 16th.

When she began the research about four years ago, Havrelock intended to produce a scathing attack on the Bible's depiction of women. But after studying the text in depth, she began to believe that female biblical figures undergo spiritual transformations as significant as those of their male counterparts.

The women's journeys differ and are more difficult to discern because they tend to take place not outside the body but within it — "like the menstrual cycle," Havrelock notes.

"The male characters wander around searching the external environment for signs of God, mostly finding God outside themselves," she said recently. "For the female characters, it is an internal process."

The book touches upon most major female and male figures in Genesis. But the authors chose to focus on the Book of Ruth, as they write in their preface, because it offers the "Bible's most complete tale of the female adventure."

This story of loyalty and friendship tells how the widowed Ruth chose to leave her culture and follow her mother-in-law Naomi into the Jewish faith and homeland.

In Havrelock's view, Ruth and Naomi are comparable to the cinematic feminist icons Thelma and Louise because both pairs worked within and against their male-dominated societies.

The similarity breaks down only in the end when Thelma and Louise chose to commit suicide together by driving off a cliff into the Grand Canyon.

"Where Ruth and Naomi demonstrate their heroism by reintegrating into society," the authors write, "Thelma and Louise pave a path away from the patriarchy and into the chasm."

Havrelock's sometimes unorthodox approach reflects a growing grassroots interest in reframing traditional Judaism. She hopes her ideas will help modern Jews tap into the Bible's ancient wisdom.

She acknowledges that she hated the Book of Ruth as a child because she saw it as a story of female submission. Rereading the text as an adult, however, shifted her paradigm. Havrelock began to see the story as emerging from female oral tradition and offering an example of women transcending a patriarchal system.

"Suddenly I knew there were female stories of merit," she said. "I get a tremendous amount of power from the heroines and matriarchs."

Havrelock's serious attitude toward biblical scholarship contrasts with her casual appearance. Carrying a purple backpack, the author wears a white T-shirt, shorts and a cream-colored denim jacket. Jaw-length, dark-blonde hair frames her suntanned face.

Though she once hoped to become a beat poet, Havrelock has instead become the assistant principal of Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom's religious school.

She also helps lead the San Francisco synagogue's monthly Rosh Chodesh gathering for women and has taught a class for women on writing biblical commentary.

After growing up in a Detroit suburb and attending a Conservative day school, Havrelock attended U.C. Santa Cruz, where she met Caspi as a freshman six years ago. She is grateful to the professor for reigniting her dormant interest in the Bible.

Caspi left Santa Cruz last year to become a professor of religion at Bates College in Maine. Looking back over a 25-year career, he names Havrelock as one of his top students.

He acknowledges that it is unusual for a professor to co-author a book with a former student, yet this is his second such volume. The other explores the binding of Isaac within Jewish and Islamic tradition.

"Professors usually do take the work of students and use it without credit," the 63-year-old said in a telephone interview. "I love to open up avenues for my students when I consider them to be future scholars."

Havrelock, however, hasn't yet decided what her future holds. She is already writing her second book of biblical commentary, which places female figures such as Queen Bathsheba in modern-day settings such as corporations.

And while Havrelock expects to end up in graduate school, she isn't necessarily in a hurry.

"I'm glad for this time to be in the world."