Bibles families provide lessons for kids and adults, teachers say

Coping with divorce? Road rage? Glass ceiling? Blended family? Wishing for some thoroughly modern role models of wisdom, strength, courage and hope?

You'll find them in the Bible, according to Rachel Havrelock and Rachel Brodie. Right from the start, it's loaded with helpful stories for today's women and their families, said the two local biblical scholars and teachers.

Both will be sharing their views in separate workshops at the Bureau of Jewish Education's annual "Feast of Jewish Learning" this month, titled titled "Our Family Matters: Jewish Memory & Storytelling."

"The first family in Genesis is a blended family — Abraham and his wives," said Havrelock, 29, who is the co-author of "Women on the Biblical Road." "Their sons Isaac and Ishmael come together only at their father's death. The familial split is cultural and really potent."

Furthermore, she added, "The women of Genesis take great risks — they are strong, independent women, great strong matriarchs. All of the Bible's great mothers start out barren and go through trials. You see movement from emptiness to supplication, action and actualization. It's a spiritual metaphor for our life journey — as the miracle of birth itself or as any kind of creation and partnership between humanity and the divine. I get a tremendous amount of power from the heroines and matriarchs."

Havrelock finds multilayered significance in the commandment to teach our children the stories of the Bible. First, the shared narratives of historic memory bind people together into a spiritual community. And second, the role models in sacred literature address contemporary ambivalence: "They pass tests, encounter God and find allies, just as we struggle today with any creative process," she said.

"The Bible has complete relevance as a guidebook in a familial context. You see complexity — people who are far from perfect, who do things wrong and then cope. You see achievement in very real terms, not a way to be good or bad, but to see that there are choices and that all of our choices have ramifications and reverberations.

"I call it 'biblical karma.' There are trickster figures, conniving, cunning, ambitious or manipulative, and regarding teaching the kids not to be that way, the Torah does it for you." Havrelock said.

Ruth has been the "most influential biblical role model" in recent years for Havrelock, a San Francisco resident who is working on her doctorate in Jewish studies through a joint U.C. Berkeley-Graduate Theological Union program.

When she was living in Israel and traveling "with the Torah in my backpack," she reread the story of Ruth on a professor's suggestion. Previously a model of female submission in Havrelock's mind, Ruth now spoke to her of female bonding, adventure, peril, action and strength. Her 1996 book is subtitled "Ruth, Naomi and the Female Journey."

In her classes at the Marin Jewish Community Center, which Havrelock teaches through the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Communities of Learning, biblical lessons provide inspiration for tackling contemporary situations. Her four women's groups study Jewish text, life and rituals. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks evoked a particular need for solace in her students. At a retreat on Sept. 12, she turned to the stories of Hannah and Samuel, she said.

"There's an incredible prayer about overcoming adversity, how disaster and destruction come to an end with growth afterwards, fitting in a cycle," Havrelock said.

Brodie also found comfort after Sept. 11 in the Bible stories that she teaches through the BJE, where she has been a professional development facilitator in family education, as well as through Elderhostel and Lehrhaus Judaica. She found herself turning to Job and Ecclesiastes.

"What sense am I to make of all this hatred and tragedy?" said Brodie, a 34-year-old Berkeley mother of two children under age 2. "I find comfort that my ancestors struggled with similar issues, that I am not alone and my problems are not new. There are a lot of parallels [to Sept. 11); for example, the despair in Job, the paradigm of suffering who has lost his family and his livelihood. We are taught that the question of 'why' is misguided. Rather, we should ask 'what should we do now?'" Brodie said.

If people in the Bible were depicted as perfect, it would be impossible for us to relate to them, said Brodie, whose program in the BJE "Feast" is titled "Biblical Families: Stories Your Teachers Never Told You."

"Their imperfections are so obvious. They are presented as human beings, failures as parents and partners, thus allowing us to attempt to relate to them. Their connection to God reminds us that God comes close not to people who are perfect, but to people who strive to be good."

Brodie hasn't found a role model in her namesake.

"Rachel struggles with sibling issues with her sister; she steals and lies. She was also very beloved and was a mother and wife to great men," Brodie said.

"I don't find myself asking, 'Goodness, what would Rachel do?' I use the larger ethical precepts to guide my life. It's not about mimicking, but about attempting to transcend some of the limitations we face."