October 2008 Vol. 90 No. 2
Rashi and Ibn Ezra, make room. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, newly published by Women of Reform Judaism and URJ Press, offers 1,400 pages of text, translation and interpretation by more than 100 contemporary scholars—all of them women.
Eve is no longer characterized as an “afterthought,” second to be created and therefore “secondary in value,” writes Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, project editor and professor of Bible at Hebrew Union CollegeJewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, in an introductory essay. Instead, a close reading depicts her “as a discerning, responsible person who, despite transgressions, maintains a creative partnership with both God and the first man. She is rightly recognized by her man as the source of life.” In an e-mail, Eskenazi adds that Eve is the first theologian (quoting God in response to the serpent’s questions) and the first historian (interpreting her family’s experience in the names she gives her children).
While women have written other Torah commentaries, this one is distinguished both by its scope as well as the diversity and sheer number of contributors. The project was developed under the auspices of the Reform movement and funded by $1.5 million raised by WRJ, but the contributors span all denominations of Judaism, specializing in fields from Bible, rabbinics, history, theology and archaeology to feminist studies, literary criticism and anthropology. The volume’s complexity and collaborative nature constituted both the challenge and a joy for its editors. “We experienced a genuine sisterhood of scholarship,” says Eskenazi.
The book’s format builds on the traditional design of the classic Mikra’ot Gedolot series. It has text- and gender-accurate English translation where the Aramaic commentary traditionally appears and five layers of exegesis presenting multiple perspectives. Each Torah portion is analyzed for the plain meaning of the text; a section called “Another View” presents a short essay on one specific aspect, followed by rabbinic views and contemporary reflections; “Voices” is mostly poetry.
These are different doorways into the text, explains associate editor Rabbi Andrea Weiss, assistant professor of Bible at HUC-JIR.
The commentary focuses on issues relating to women, portions that are obscure to contemporary readers and elements that remain significant for Jews today.
For example, an essay by archaeologist Elizabeth Bloch-Smith on the building of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle in the desert, cites both biblical passages and archaeological evidence showing that spinning and weaving were women’s work. Bloch-Smith suggests that women created both the textiles for the mishkan and the priestly vestments. The discussion on the Song of the Sea states that, based on literary, sociological and musicological evidence, many scholars conclude the poem was composed and performed by women and that one ancient manuscript actually calls it the Song of Miriam (instead of Moses).
For some, the “Voices” section is the most powerful. “Before, in this way, in bygone days/ Women, like me, in silence/ Would bear supplications, hidden flames,/ With a throbbing spirit...,” writes Wendy Zierler on Parashat Teruma.
The women’s Torah project began with Cantor Sarah Sager of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, Ohio, who proposed the idea for a women’s commentary at a regional meeting of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (now WRJ) in 1992. Work on the project began in 1995. This commentary could not have been written a generation ago because the pool of women scholars, rabbis, academics, cantors and educators was not large enough.
The editors are creating study guides for the $75 commentary (www.urjbooksandmusic.com); a Hebrew translation is in the works and a German version is being discussed.
For Weiss, the book’s forest-green, gold-embossed hardcover binding is also significant. “It looks like a classical Jewish text,” she says. “Its appearance conveys its sacredness.”