Women take on the Torah
A women's commentary on the sacred text, 13 years in development, could become a model for future works.
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"Moses speaks to God and God responds that these five daughters speak rightly," Eskenazi says. "This is an extraordinary moment. It is the only time in the Pentateuch that a law is initiated by people, rather than God, and it becomes a 'law from Sinai,' binding for all future generations."Skip to next paragraph
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For the women of Reform Judaism, this is just what they have done – insist on their share – not of land, but in inheriting the Torah and participating in the ongoing Jewish conversation.
While the WRJ carried out the fundraising for the project, scholars from the other Jewish denominations also joined in the work, most of them senior scholars in their fields.
Together they created a new model for a commentary that involves five distinct approaches to each section of the Bible.
The first contains the Hebrew and English texts and line-by-line exegesis, with an introduction providing an overview and the cultural context. Then a short essay provides a different perspective, sometimes challenging the first.
"It's a Jewish practice to always look at the text through more than one lens," Eskenazi explains.
The third approach looks at how rabbinic scholars over the millenniums have addressed issues in the text. Fourth, there is a "contemporary reflection" on its meaning for today. Finally, creative responses to the text are showcased, from Jewish poets of the past and present. Throughout, the commentary pays attention to the spirituality of people's lives, Eskenazi adds.
For Mr. Hirschfield, who is an Orthodox rabbi, "This is a new and essential addition to a 4,000-year-old bookshelf."
Jewish denominations have differing theologies, and the commentary leans more to non-Orthodox versions of the faith. Hirschfield supports cross-fertilization in both directions.
"I'd love to see more Orthodox people say, 'No, we don't share their theology, but boy, they've helped us to appreciate the text we both love better.' "
The Jewish Theological Seminary of New York, a Conservative seminary, will soon hold a program on the work. And it has sparked interest in some Roman Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities.
Phyllis Trible, an internationally renowned biblical scholar who teaches at Wake Forest Divinity School, calls the commentary "first rate." An interfaith group of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian women she's associated with plans to use it as a basis for long-term study.
For the women directly involved, the lengthy project is a fulfillment. "In the book of Proverbs, King Solomon urges the reader to hear the discipline of the father and not forget the teaching (torah) of the mother," Eskenazi says. "At last we have the teachings of mothers, sisters, daughters." "The Torah: A Women's Commentary" highlights the historical role of women, bringing fresh insights to traditional texts.
For instance, the commentary places greater emphasis on the first chapter of Genesis, in which God created male and female simultaneously.
In regard to Genesis 2, "layers of misconception have accrued" from some previous translations, says Bible scholar Tamara Cohn Eskenazi. "Most English translations render the same word differently when it applies to the woman and to the man.... They have God speak to the woman about pain in childbirth, which is not what the Hebrew says, but render the word as 'toil' when referring to the man, making the women's punishment more severe."
God holds the couple equally responsible, she adds, and when the story is set in its context, "it aims to account for the specific conditions of an ancient society, not prescribe a perpetual destiny."