NEW YORK (Oct. 16)
How many people know that when the Torah describes Abraham mourning the death of Sarah, it’s the only time in the entire text that a man mourns a woman? Or that Adam and Eve were equal partners in crime? Or that women most likely were instrumental in constructing the Temple?
Too few. That’s why the Reform movement will soon publish a commentary on the Torah that gives the woman’s perspective.
“The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” a project of Women of Reform Judaism, the movement’s women’s division, is a collaboration of 80 biblical scholars, archaeologists, rabbis, cantors, theologians and poets from across the religious spectrum — all of them women who came together to present a new perspective on the Bible.
“The goal of this is to bring women’s voices to the forefront,” WRJ’s executive director, Shelley Lindauer, told JTA. “History has been written by men, men were the ones who wrote the history of the Torah, and women’s voices got pushed to the background. We want to hear more about what the matriarchs said, some more about the women characters in the Torah.”
The volume won’t be released until the WRJ Assembly and the URJ Biennial conferences in San Diego in December 2007, but the Reform movement will introduce a chapter of the book this November.
During the week of Nov. 18, when Parshat Chayei Sarah is read, some 250 Reform congregations — some 5,000 people in all — will participate in a study program based on the “Women’s Commentary.”
WRJ and URJ Press, which is publishing the book, have released the chapter from the 1,500-page volume for congregations to use during Shabbat services or other study sessions, along with a list of suggested talking points, to give a taste of what the commentary will offer, said Rabbi Hara Person, URJ Press’ managing editor.
The commentary will be laid out differently than many others. Each chapter will offer an overview, followed by Hebrew text and a linear translation, along with a central commentary from one of the 80 contributors.
After the central commentary, another woman will give a short countercommentary offering a different viewpoint on each chapter. Then another woman will give a post-biblical interpretation, and another a contemporary reflection on the parshah, or weekly portion.
Each parshah also will be followed by a selection of creative writing, most often poetry, that reflects the themes that were just read.
More than traditional commentaries, the new volume will focus on women when they’re in the text of the Torah — and also when they’re glaringly absent, editor Tamara Cohn Eskenazi said.
For instance, Chayei Sarah deals with the death of Sarah and the courting of Rebecca. Abraham’s slave finds Rebecca at a well, where she offers him water, and he asks her family if he can take her back to Canaan to wed Abraham’s son.
The women’s commentary is careful to point out that Rebecca gives her consent. Rebecca is an active, not passive, character from her very introduction in the Torah, the commentary says.
Though he hasn’t seen excerpts of the book, the notion of a women’s commentary garnered praise from Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
“Commentators have traditionally been male, so I think the women’s voice and perspective certainly can help to add and interpret and bring the message of the Torah in a way that may be different than a male’s voice,” Epstein said.
But he was a little wary of an exclusively female commentary, just as said he would be wary of an exclusively male commentary in this day and age.
“We need commentaries that speak to all people and that have male and female voices blended together,” he said.
Differences between the women’s commentary and traditional commentaries start at the very beginning, with the story of creation.
The creation of woman is one of the most misinterpreted passages in the Bible and is fraught with cultural bias, Eskenazi explains in her interpretation, which will be published in the “Women’s Commentary.”
While the description of Eve being created from Adam’s rib is commonly taken as a sign of Eve’s inferiority, it’s more a statement of their equality, she says. They’re described in Genesis 1:26-28 as being of the same flesh, both “created in God’s image and blessed with fertility and power.”
They later are described as partners. And when they sin by eating the apple, they do so together — yet it’s Eve who often is perceived as the evildoer and the one who was the impetus for the expulsion from Eden.
An essay by Elizabeth Bloch-Smith in the volume discusses Parshat Trumah, which describes the building of the Mishkan, the portable temple the Jews built in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Although the gender of the artisans who built the Mishkan isn’t clear, it’s often assumed that they were male.
But based on archaeological evidence from the time that shows women heavily involved in weaving and spinning, Bloch-Smith suggests it was women who provided the yarn for the temple’s Tent of Meeting, according to Rabbi Andrea Weiss, the commentary’s associate editor.
Weiss, an assistant professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, said she’s now teaching a class based on the “Women’s Commentary.” The volume has been in the works for 13 years, since Sarah Sager, a cantor, challenged the movement to undertake the project in a speech to the WRJ assembly in 1993.
“We’re not trying to make this midrash. We’re not trying to make the text say something that it didn’t say,” Weiss said. “We’re trying to read it closely and to pay more attention to parts not found in other texts.”