Jewish Journal

Women’s commentary offers alternative take on Torah

by Amy Klein

Posted on Oct. 4, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi

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. The Torah: A Women's Commentary 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."

"We're a community of Jews, and we should not willingly separate ourselves from the community," he said.

When he spoke to a reporter, Goldmark had not seen the commentary but he acknowledged Eskenazi as one of the foremost biblical scholars, and Orthodox female biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz as among the commentators who have most influenced him.

It is not women's scholarship he objects to, but rather the segregation of men and women, a dislike he also extends to all-women's feminist hagaddahs and seders.

"I think we should be gender-blind when it comes to the Torah," Goldmark said.

Eskenazi said the book's editorial board debated long and hard about whether to exclude men.

"We could not see a way of inviting our excellent male colleagues to join our excellent female colleagues without making male voices be mere tokens," she said. "In addition, it would have meant giving up the opportunity to showcase women scholars as fully as possible. We live at a time in history where there are more than enough women scholars, interpreters of Torah, whose voices need to be included or heard and we decided to make them the priority," she said. But they did draw on the works of scholars who are men -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- "who are indispensable of any study of Torah."

This Torah is not only for women. The commentaries are intended for men and women of all denominations, including clergy, academics and laypeople, non-Jews as well as Jews, Eskenazi said. One Catholic University has already asked the WRJ to hold a celebration on its campus.

So what will a women's interpretation say about an essentially male-driven narrative -- that, after all, is called, "The Five Books of Moses" -- that is different from all that has come before?

Consider this week's story of the creation of the world: "No biblical story has had more influence on women's lives and identity -- and none has been more often reinterpreted through later cultural biases -- than the creation of Woman in Genesis 2 and the expulsion from the Garden in Genesis 3," Eskenazi writes in the introduction to Genesis. She refers to the two versions of creation presented in Genesis, a duality that has often confused scholars. The first, in which man and woman were created equally, "is typically overlooked," she writes, in favor of the second, in which the creation of man precedes woman. "Consequently, the first woman has been cast by later interpreters as an afterthought.... She has been held solely or at least primarily responsible for human suffering."

Eskenazi sees in the first account of creation, woman as "a discerning, responsible person who despite transgression, maintains both a creative partnership with God and the first man. She is rightly recognized by her man as a source of life."

These new interpretations -- ranging from traditional to New Age to poetic -- are fresh insights, but are they authentic? Or by adding women's voices and highlighting the female characters and women-related concerns, are they distorting it for feminist purposes?

Not at all, Eskenazi says. "The Torah indeed represents primarily the insights, experiences and hopes of men. But they were not writing only for men. They were doing their best to address the important questions that all of us need to address as individuals and as a community -- interpreters of the Bible continued to do the same," she said. "There is no question of 'distorting,' but rather a question of understanding what our inspired ancestors were trying to convey to their own people and to those who came after."

Besides, she said, the rabbinic sages acknowledge that every generation has its own interpreters, and every generation must reclaim the Torah. "It's not meant to be written in stone and stay in stone. It has to be turned into life -- it's a living organism," Eskenazi said, referring to the phrase, "Torat Chaim," a living Torah. "The words don't just stay on the page. They live with us."

"The Torah: A Women's Commentary," will be officially unveiled in December at the 46th annual WRJ Assembly in San Diego.

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