Women Take on the Torah

Article excerpt

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. …