October 4, 2007
Women’s commentary offers alternative take on Torah
In 1992, Cantor Sarah J. Sager was struggling with the biblical story of the binding of Issac when, suddenly, she had an idea. |
"As I thought about the horrifying image of Abraham with his arm uplifted against his son, I suddenly thought about Sarah. For the very first time, it occurred to me that Sarah was part of this story, that her feelings and her reactions mattered, that if she had been asked to sacrifice her child, the story might have ended right there. I realized that in her absence and her silence there was room for commentary."
As Sager began her research, she found there were many people -- both women and men -- who were thinking about the silence of women in the Jewish tradition, and working to create "a sense of women's presence at the most important moments of our history and in our most sacred text," Sager later wrote. But there was no one place to find all that commentary.
Sager, who is cantor of Anshe Chesed Fairmont Temple in Beachwood, Ohio, challenged the Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) to create a commentary to reflect women's voices.
"In every generation, our people have turned to the Torah to seek answers to their needs, their problems, their contemporary challenges," she said in a speech at the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods' (now the WRJ) 1993 National Biennial Convention in San Francisco.
"We are here today, in large measure, because the Torah has yielded meaning and truth to every generation that has sought its wisdom. We can do no less. It is our responsibility to make this book live for us. As men have done throughout the centuries, we must stretch the words, we must invest them with our needs and our imagination. We must struggle with the plain sense of stories, laws and attitudes that exclude, de-value and indict women. We must incorporate women's history and women's experience as part of the living memory of the Jewish people."
Fifteen years later, the WRJ is publishing "The Torah: A Women's Commentary," edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, a professor at the Los Angeles branch of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. While there have been a number of "women's" biblical commentaries over the years -- such as "In the Image of God, A Feminist Commentary on the Torah," by Judith S. Antonelli, and "A Women's Commentary on the Torah," edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein -- the new WRJ commentary is the most comprehensive to date; Antonelli's book intersperses biblical and rabbinic interpretations, and Goldstein presents comments from one female rabbi on each portion.
The WRJ commentary, on the other hand, incorporates the work of more than 80 female biblical scholars, rabbis, archaeologists, historians, poets, cantors and philosophers -- the "stars" of Jewish scholarship -- beginning with Eskenazi, an expert on the role of women in the biblical world and the implications of the Bible for the Jewish world today. Others include Rachel Adler, (sometimes referred to as "the mother of Jewish feminism"), Judith Plaskow, Carol Meyers ("Discovering Eve: Israelite Woman in Context"), Judith Baskin (a major scholar of rabbinic literature), as well as Los Angeles locals Rabbi Laura Geller and Rabbi Sue Elwell and rising "stars" in the younger generation, such as associate editor Andrea Weiss and Rabbi Judy Schindler.
Like the Talmud, this commentary has many layers.
Every weekly Torah portion includes an overview of the parsha, the Hebrew text with an English translation and commentary, plus a line-by-line explication. Four additional commentaries are also offered for each parsha: "Another View," "Post-biblical Interpretation," "Contemporary Reflections" and "Voices," a modern poetic interpretation.
For example, this week's parsha begins the cycle of reading the Torah with Bereshit, or Genesis. In "A Women's Commentary," it begins with the words "When God was about to create heaven and earth ..." instead of "In the beginning." This is because, says first level of commentary, "as Rashi noted, the opening verses do not claim creation out of nothing."
At the bottom of that first page are the titles of four more commentaries, to be found at the end of the portion. Another View ("A women would have up to eight pregnancies to provide the optimum family size"), Post-Biblical Interpretation ("For the Rabbis, the female also shares in the divine image"), Contemporary Reflections ("Our sexualities seem to point toward some element in the divine nature") and Voices ("Your hands create my body/Your mouth breathes life in me/my face shines").
It wasn't easy trying to gather the myriad modern women's viewpoints into one cohesive work.
"It is never possible to incorporate all voices," Eskenazi said. "But we have made a huge step to rectify a situation in which the fact that half of the Jewish community has been left out of the official, public conversation about the Torah that has been going on for nearly two thousands years. We at last live in a time when women can be equal partners in this exchange."
Women must be included in this conversation, not only because the Torah is the book of our ancestors, she said, but "it is and has been the central wellspring for Jewish identity, a guidance for who we are and how we can live as Jews."
Eskenazi said the Torah has ramifications in numerous arenas, not only Jewish -- it is an important part of the Christian Bible, and for literature and history of Western traditions as a whole. "We all miss out when we exclude qualified women from making their knowledge and insights publicly available to the broad community," she said.
But some take exception to the notion of a women's-only commentary. Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, executive vice president of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis for the last 23 years and the outgoing rabbi of Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada, finds the idea of a new Torah commentary only written by women "exclusive."
"For the past 100 years, women have fought a wonderful fight and have largely succeeded in achieving rights within the Jewish community," he said of the non-Orthodox movements, especially in ordination as rabbis and cantors and within the synagogue itself.
"Women for the past several generations have rightfully said they have been victims of persecution by the male members of the Jewish community," he said. Nevertheless, he said, "I think this might be the reverse of that," and he cited "Ethics of Our Fathers, which says, "Do not separate yourself from the community."