New “Ball of Fire”?

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary — published in 2008 by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) — includes full English and Hebrew Torah texts interspersed with commentary; introductory essays; and an overview, poetic “voices” and “another view” for each weekly portion. It encompasses the commentary of 100 authors, from across the spectrum of Jewish practice and belief, and incorporates the work of 140 poets. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is attractive and useful, but it is unclear whether it does — or should — meet its creators’ expectations.

I find this publication situation a bit reminiscent of the 1941 Cooper/Stanwyck movie, “Ball of Fire”:  Professor Bertram Potts and fellow lexicographers are about to publish their long-researched dictionary when Potts realizes that language usage has changed — “cats” are spending “dough” — while they’ve been in their study. Much has changed between 1992, when the URJ commentary was conceived, and 2008, when it appeared — and those years are not clearly reflected in the new volume.

I was similarly struck when Alison Lavie spoke at the conference, “This is My PrayerVa’ani tefillati: Jewish Women in Prayer,” on March 1 (2009). Her comments centered around her personal discovery of women’s prayer traditions from various points in Jewish history. To some Israeli audiences, “Why didn’t I know about the women’s traditions of my ancestors?” might have been a reasonable refrain; to a U.S. audience — one self-selected for an interest in prayer, and women’s prayer at that — the question drew many puzzled looks and mutterings long the lines of, “Good question. Why didn’t you know about women’s traditions?”

Various compilations of Jewish women’s prayers have been available in English for nearly 20 years. And, while Lavie’s recent English publication, A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book, was a welcome addition, it was not “groundbreaking” for U.S. readers — and her remarks were not news to many in the conference audience.

Expectations: the Challenge

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary was launched in response to a challenge to create

a commentary that would help women re-claim Torah by gathering together the scholarship and insights of women across the Jewish spectrum and around the world,

and to 

imagine women feeling permitted, for the first time, feeling able, feeling legitimate in their study of Torah.

This challenge — to the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (now Women of Reform Judaism [WRJ]) — was first presented by Cantor Sarah Sager in 1992. It is repeated — without remark concerning the intervening years — in the volume’s foreword and in URJ publicity.

Ironically, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary itself — with its extensive citations of women’s biblical scholarship over the past 30 years — is indication that, for many women, at least, the opportunity to feel “for the first time…legitimate in their study of Torah” is a thing of the past. The Torah/commentary cannot — and should no longer be expected to — play in 2009 the role envisioned for it in 1992.

Expectations: The Center of the Page

URJ publicity also quotes editor Tamara Cohn Eskanazi on bringing women “to the center of the page”:

We want to bring women of the Torah from the shadow into the limelight, from their silences into speech, from the margins to which they have often been relegated to the center of the page – for their sake, for our sake and for our children’s sake.

For more than a decade, however, works by individuals — such as Alicia Ostriker’s Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (Rutgers Univ. Pres, 1994) and Judith Antonelli’s In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah (Jason Aronson, 1995) — brought women of the Torah “from silence to speech.” Moreover, works including Lifecycles Volume 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporay Life, edited by Orenstein and Litman (Jewish Lights, 1998);  Torah of the Mothers, edited by Elper and Handelman (Urim, 2000); and The Women’s Torah Commentary: New Insights from Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions, edited by Goldstein (Jewish Lights, 2000) brought biblical women “from the shadows into the limelight.”

Bringing women of the Torah “center-page” has been a long, cross-denominational effort. Acknowledging the work and vision behind The Torah: A Women’s Commentary need not preclude placing the volume in its wider context.

Expectations: Context

Perhaps The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is designed to seem timeless and, therefore, deliberately avoided referencing prior Torah-wrestlings. But it is through those wrestlings that our Torah grows; citations — even vague nods toward authors who considered the topic previously — can help a reader who wants to explore further.

For example, references to Jill Hammer, Alicia Ostriker, Ilana Pardes and others who considered the episode of Miriam’s leprosy would have helped to (no pun intended) flesh out the discussion and point the reader to more. The Torah: A Modern Commentary references many traditional sources — from rabbis of the Talmud to Ibn Ezra and Rashi — as well as more recent authors, such as Martin Buber, in discussing this portion; while there are a few references to traditional sources within this portion in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, however, there are no citations for the contemporary approaches.

The end result is that the Torah’s women are closer to center-page, but the scholars — women and men — that struggled to bring them there have disappeared into the shadows. Perhaps the study guides URJ is preparing to supplement The Torah: A Women’s Commentary could include a little scholarly background and a citation or two. (The ones I’ve seen so far do not.)

Most importantly, in considering the role this new resource can play — and the importance of evolving context in understanding that role — I believe we have to give careful consideration to how The Torah: A Women’s Commentary will be used.

Center-Page, But Still Off-Mainstream

Women of the Torah may be placed centrally within The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. But that volume remains separate from The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Plaut/Stein), Reform’s standard Torah text — where women are still relegated largely to the margins. 

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary has been called “groundbreaking” and “pioneering.” A truly groundbreaking endeavor for the early 21st Century, however, would have been for URJ to incorporate women’s scholarship and perspectives on women of the Torah within the movement’s central text, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Plaut/Stein). But this did not happen when that volume was re-issued in 2005, so the “women’s book” is still viewed as an optional, supplemental — perhaps, tangential — text, studied mostly by women.

The two volumes, The Torah: A Modern Commentary and The Torah: A Women’s Commentary – as things now stand — represent a study division as powerful as any physical mechitza [barrier between men’s and women’s prayer sections]. The new volume may have brought women “center-page,” but they remain off-off-mainstream unless we approach this new resource in a less ghetto-izing fashion.

Time, Finally, To Remember Together?

Consider for a moment Merle Feld’s poem, “We All Stood Together,” included in the 2008 volume:

My brother and I were at Sinai…

If we remembered it together

we could recreate holy time

sparks flying

It’s been nearly 18 years since the same poem was published in Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality (Beacon, 1992)…

…isn’t it time we tried to “remember it together”?

Can we move toward a new way of studying that doesn’t leave anyone’s Torah behind a virtual mechitza

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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