October 4, 2007
Women’s commentary offers alternative take on Torah
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"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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