Getting female perspective on the Torah

Monday, July 2, 2007

By Margaret Ramirez
Chicago Tribune
June 30, 2007 

CHICAGO A new women's commentary on the Torah, the first comprehensive commentary written entirely by female rabbis and Jewish scholars, is set to start some provocative discussions when it comes out n the fall. 

The Torah: A Women's Commentary, to be published by URJ Press, took more than a decade to produce and includes essays, commentaries and interpretations from more than 80 of the world's leading Jewish female Bible scholars, rabbis, historians, philosophers and archeologists. 

"This commentary is likely to open up a whole new conversation about gender," said Rabbi Hara Person, editor in chief of URJ Press. "With this, gender becomes another lens through which we can study the text." 

"I think for a long time we've been left out," said Rachel Havrelock, professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a contributor to the groundbreaking project. "The purpose of this is to help women feel at home in our own faith." 

Person said the women's commentary gives deeper dimension to women's voices in the Torah. But it also takes risks by confronting controversial topics such as passages in Leviticus about menstruation and sex. 

"We deal with the treatment of women and their exclusion at times," Person said. "We deal with the difficult issues of menstrual blood in Leviticus, and we talk about the role of blood in the Torah and in our lives. We deal with that stuff head-on and don't shy away from it." 

Though the commentary is geared toward women, its creators hope that Jewish men, too, will learn from it and find relevance to the women in their own lives. 

Indeed, some Jewish men who reviewed advance copies have already offered praise. 

"For generations, the task of interpreting the texts of Torah has been almost exclusively the province of men," wrote Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. "In our generation, this has changed and the voices of women and their understanding of the Torah have enriched our people." 

The idea for a women's commentary came from Cantor Sarah Sager in a 1993 speech at the Women of Reform Judaism Assembly in San Francisco. 

Sager spoke about Jewish women's spirituality and listening to the hidden voice of Sarah, her matriarchal namesake. She challenged the women to produce a historic Torah commentary that would incorporate women's history and experience. 

"Imagine women feeling permitted, for the first time, feeling able, feeling legitimate in their study of Torah," Sager said in the speech. "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." 

Though some worried that men might feel isolated by the text, Rabbi Lisa Greene of said she felt the commentary held lessons for everyone. 

"I'm looking forward to sitting down with my colleagues and finding out the best ways to use this," Greene said. "To me, it's thrilling." 

Copyright © 2007, South Florida Sun-Sentinel 


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu