Women Read Torah: Torah of the Mothers; Contemporary Jewish Women Read Classical Jewish Texts
Sheila E. Jelen is an assistant professor of English and Jewish studies at the University of Maryland.
Urim Publications, 2000.
At the age of seventeen I arrived in Israel to study for a year in a women's yeshiva. I was asked, my first Shabbat there, to give a talk on the weekly Torah portion to all the women in my program as well as to the rabbi of the local community. My destiny as a teacher became vividly apparent to me that night. But even as I had been given the opportunity by the school to come to that realization, my teachers became inscrutable when I asked difficult questions about why as a group my classmates and I could not form a women's minyan every morning, why we were not taught to read for ourselves from the Torah and the Megillot, why we were expected to step out of the room so men could pray when there was no natural partition behind which to position ourselves. It struck me that I would have to find a way to be everything I was destined to be despite the people who would not answer my questions, would not understand my need to be an equal in religious intellectual community.
I begin this review with an autobiographical account of my own experience at a women's yeshiva in Israel because I am back in Israel again this year, thirteen years later. In the interim I did not stay in the centers of Jewish learning--and certainly not Jewish women's learning. I chose instead to make my life in Ann Arbor, in Berkeley, and in Washington, D.C., studying and teaching Jewish literature from a secular perspective. For that reason, I read, with great curiosity and pleasure, Torah of the Mothers, a collection of scholarly essays by Jerusalem-based women on biblical and talmudic texts.
In their introduction, the collection's editors, Susan Handelman and Ora Wiskind Elper, seem intent on separating out the phenomenon of Orthodox women's Torah scholarship from its content. Yet, much of the book, despite its editors' articulated intentions, is focused on the miracle of Orthodox women's scholarship itself--the miracle of its having grown out of a culture where, according to a minority rabbinic opinion which came to dominate the world of Jewish scholarship until the end of the nineteenth century, "the words of the Torah should be burnt rather than taught to women." (Jerusalem Talmud, Sota 3:4)
Torah of the Mothers is divided into four sections: the first is comprised of essays written by contributors about their relationships, both intellectual and emotional, with their teachers. The second group of essays is on biblical texts. Some focus on figures of women in the Bible while others investigate various aspects of the patriarchs. The third section of the book, (and the least effective) is dedicated to analyses of rabbinic texts; the final section explores the theme of "Exile and Redemption" through biblical, rabbinic, and more personal lenses.
Contributors to Torah of the Mothers include academics in fields such as literary studies, linguistics, biblical, and Jewish studies; teachers in religious seminaries; and independent scholars. Because of the variety of intellectual orientations in the book, the essays are somewhat uneven. For example, Jane Falk, in a beautifully written essay, employs a tight linguistic methodology, analyzing what she considers to be the "rhetorical" complaining of the Children of Israel in the desert. In contrast, in an essay on Genesis, author Simi Peter poses what she calls a methodological query when what she really is asking is a theological question. Further, like some of the collection's other authors, Peters takes for granted that readers share her theology, yet takes the time to painstakingly define such terms as Torah, Midrash, and Talmud. Such essays leave one to question the volume's intellectual vigor as well as its intended audience.
Throughout, the connection between who is studying--the phenomenon of Orthodox women's study itself--and what is being studied remains unresolved. …