Women take on the Torah

A women's commentary on the sacred text, 13 years in development, could become a model for future works.

Mark Thomson
courtesy of marvin Steindler/hebrew union college – jewish institute of religion
Eskenazi: Scholar who edited 'Women's Commentary' cites importance of seeing Torah through 'more than one lens.'

The Hebrew scriptures had been interpreted for thousands of years – by men. But one woman decided it was time that women's voices be added in significant form to the Jewish people's ongoing conversation about their covenant with God.

"If we are really serious about women's spirituality, about liberating the concepts of God and community, about integrating the Torah of our tradition into the Torah of our lives, then there is something very concrete that we can do," Sarah Sager told a national convention of Jewish women.

It was time for a commentary on the Five Books of Moses – the foundational texts of Judaism – to be written by the growing coterie of Jewish women scholars. The convention agreed, and her dream – first proposed in 1993 – has become a reality.

After 13 years of work by 80 women – archaeologists, rabbis, biblical scholars, historians, poets – the first printing of "The Torah: A Women's Commentary" was published in December, and sold out in five weeks. The work promises to have an impact not only on the most integral aspects of Jewish life, but also on biblical study by people of other faiths. Its unique, multilayered approach may serve as a model for future Bible commentaries.

"It's simply a magnificent work," says Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield, co-president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. "It will broaden the range of students of the Hebrew Bible because they will feel this is a new avenue to approach an old text, and it will deepen all readers' appreciation of that text."

Praised for its quality by people of various Jewish denominations, the 1,300-page work introduces women's perspectives into the tradition's conversation on its most sacred text. In Jewish tradition, the Pentateuch (Torah, in Hebrew) is divided into 54 portions for weekly readings in the synagogue. For millennia, Jews everywhere have followed the same sequential readings for each week.

"In our congregations and even individually, Torah study is a large part of who we are as a people," says Shelley Lindauer, executive director of Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), which sponsored the project. (In the US, Reform Judaism is the largest of the three major Jewish movements, which also include Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.)

Yet many women have long felt that their part in the story has been neglected. The editor of the commentary, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, recalls how some responded to the December release.

"An 80-year-old woman, embracing her copy, said, 'I've been waiting for this all my life.' And a young woman told me, 'For the first time, I am included in the conversation,'" Dr. Eskenazi says.

One of the stories that highlight the import of biblical women begins in Numbers 27. Five sisters challenge an inheritance practice that would deprive them of their father's land. They speak to Moses and the entire leadership.

"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."

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."

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