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New Reform Torah Commentary Provides Lessons of Matriarchy

November 22, 2006
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The Torah teaches us to revere our mother and father (Lev. 19:3). This mitzvah is embedded within the Holiness Code. In observing it, we achieve holiness, as well as the wholeness of learning from the wisdom of both our patriarchy and our matriarchy. A new Torah commentary written by women, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, currently in progress at the URJ Press, does just that. With significant help from Women of Reform Judaism, this Torah commentary — which includes the work of women scholars, clergy and poets — is meant to complement and supplement what has gone before, not to replace. The goal of this project is to place women’s voices alongside the male voices of our tradition. When women join the conversation, new ways of studying the text emerge that add depth to the experience for students of Torah. Familiar tales are reframed, new understandings surface, and traditional readings are challenged. The women in the text become not simply secondary characters, but primary in their own right.

The story of Yehudah and Tamar in Genesis 38, for example, becomes no longer just one episode in the life of Judah, but rather a complete and rich tale about insights into broken promises, being a childless widow in biblical society, and the avenues of redress that were open to women. When Reuven sleeps with his father’s concubine Bilhah, we read the incident not only as a part of the larger Ya’acov and Yosef narratives, but also as a story about male and female power, and the nexus of sexuality, jealousy, anger and revenge.

References to biology are not skipped over or left unexplored. Though the women of the Bible may have heard God’s voice, or lived lives of heroic struggle, like all women they also bled and nursed and gave birth and dealt with infertility and the fear of rape. Whereas these details may be mentioned only in passing in the text, and may be only minor events in the big picture of the biblical narrative, they are recognized as potential windows into women’s lives. We also take note of the ways in which the texts treat the generic female body. We study the laws about a woman being taken by force, the laws surrounding birth and menstruation, the laws of purity and contamination. From these questions we gain insights into the lives of our ancestors as well as into our own.

We ask what tools women had to work with in order to become active participants in the narrative, and the ways in which power and powerlessness motivate actions. Tamar used clothing to hide her identity and seduce her father-in-law in order to get what was rightfully hers. Rivka used clothing and food to help Ya’acov trick Yitzhak. What do these motifs teach us about women’s lives in ancient times, and now? How are biblical characters forced to act when their access to power is limited, and what light does this shed on contemporary human behavior?

Names and namelessness are a topic that can teach us about kinship relationships, the relative importance of the sons or husbands of these women, and their roles in the narrative. Why is Esau’s wife, Adah, named when so many other wives are nameless? Why are Noah’s wife and Lot’s wife unnamed, despite their important roles? Why are the daughters of Zelophehad named? Why is Aaron’s wife Elisheva, who seemingly plays no role in any story, given a name?

This week we previewed the commentary through WRJ’s Parshat Chayei Sarah program, in which more than 10,000 participants throughout North America in nearly 300 Reform synagogues engaged in Torah study. On Nov. 18, women and men alike had the opportunity to discuss this portion that both details the death of our matriarch Sarah and introduces us to Rivka.

During this study of the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, as seen through the eyes of women, provocative questions were addressed and we will perhaps all begin to gain a new perspective on the role of women in the Bible.

When women study Torah and create commentary, we become partners with God, who invites us into this sacred dialogue of text study. When women study Torah, we take our rightful place in a sacred dialogue. We declare that the lives of the women of the Torah matter, and thus that our lives and our concerns matter too.

The study of Torah by women, and the writing of Torah commentary by women, is not meant to compete, but rather to complete the richness of the Torah study that has come before. In order to truly be a holy community before God, we must revere both the mothers and the fathers of our tradition. We must listen to the whole raucous spectrum of voices, not limit our own possibilities for holiness based solely on gender identification. Inspired by the cacophony of diverse voices, we are able to inch ever closer toward wholeness, and thus to holiness.

Rabbi Hara Person is editor in chief at Union for Reform Judaism Press.

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