Rivers of His Hands

“The rivers of his hands [נהרות ידיו] poured into his good deeds,” reads the Yehuda Amichai poem “My Father.” The Hebrew Poetry group at Temple Micah discussed this poem on Shabbat, and I later recalled some background which seems related.

Rabbi Meir says in Pirkei Avot:

Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things…and the secrets of the Torah are revealed to him, and he becomes like an ever-strengthening spring, and like a river that does not stop [וּכְנָהָר שֶׁאֵינוֹ פוֹסֵק]…
— Pirkei Avot 6:1, from Sefaria

In addition, the biblical concept of “נָהָר — nahar” provides further relevant background.

A River Goes Out

River images are pretty common in biblical text. The word “נָהָר — nahar” is used 120 times in the Hebrew bible, with 98 uses translated as “river,” according to this concordance . (The word is also rendered “flood” or “floods” or “streams.” Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance is widely available on the web and very handy; here’s more about this Christian resource.) But the first “nahar” in particular seems related to both the verse from Avot and Amichai’s poem.

“A river comes forth from Eden to water the garden.”
V’nahar yotzei me’eden lehashkot et hagan
וְנָהָר יֹצֵא מֵעֵדֶן
— Genesis 2:10

Noting that the river “yotzei [goes out, comes forth]” from Eden, a contemporary teacher writes:

How ironic. Wouldn’t the river be more likely to water the Garden if it flowed INTO the Garden? The deepest answer is that Torah is compared to lifegiving waters. The more one gives Torah over to others the more watering comes back in return. The more one teaches, the more one learns. The more we give of ourselves to others, the more we get back in return.
blog of Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

Amichai’s poem, “My Father,” says nothing about Torah. But the images he shares seem consistent with — and I’d argue, built on — biblical and rabbinic ideas of rivers sustained by their “going out.”

A Category Struggle: Source Materials Update

This past Shabbat I included a passage from one of my favorite teachers, Alicia Ostriker, in a dvar Torah. I was asked to share the bibliographic information and maybe some other resources providing women’s commentary on Torah. As a result, I decided to update my source materials. And, in the spirit of my chosen NaBloPoMo topic, I am offering here 30 such resources, with annotations:

Female Scholarship (but not particularly “feminist” or focused on women)
Feminist Scholarship on Torah
Women’s Torah Commentary
Women’s Midrash and Creative Commentary
Miscellaneous Related Resources
My Writing (shameless plug)

Please note that categories here are somewhat arbitrary and do overlap. Nor was it clear to me whom and what to include. Nehama Leibowitz, for example, is a category in herself: She’s one of the few and probably the first female scholars universally cited and taught; her work, however, is not particularly focused on female characters or themes in the Torah, and I don’t think she considered herself a feminist.

Some of these resources are treasures for me, material I that has moved me, shifted my practice or perspective. Some are included because they’re often cited or because they’re part of the whole feminist Jewish history. The list is not even trying to be comprehensive. However, if you have a resource you treasure and want to share, please post it in the comments or contact me, songeveryday at gmail.com, to share a guest blog.
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Beyond Bleary-Eyed Page Shuffling

Some Early Morning Blessing Resources


offered with thoughts of Temple Micah’s upcoming siddur study group
Why open a prayer book?
The Art of Blessing the Day
God’s Faith
Morning Poetry
More Links

Why open a prayer book:

“Sometimes you’re just too strung out to come up with your own personal prayers. Having the text in front of you kind of takes you by the hand and walks you over to something that matters more than whatever is getting you down.
— Jay Michaelson in Making Prayer Real by R. Mike Comins, Jewish Lights 2010 (see also Making Prayer Real website
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“The Art of Blessing the Day”

An excerpt from the eponymous 1999 book by Marge Piercy:


The blessing for the return of a favorite cat,
the blessing for love returned, for friends’
return, for money received unexpected,
the blessing for the rising of the bread,
the sun, the oppressed. I am not sentimental
about old men mumbling the Hebrew by rote
with no more feeling than one says gesundheit.

But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree

of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.
— Marge Piercy. Entire poem on publisher’s page
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God’s Faith?

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer teaches, regarding the early morning prayer, “Modah/eh ani…rabah emunatekha [Thank You, God for returning my soul to me…great is Your faith]”: What is this about God having “great faith”? Upon awakening, we note that God has just entrusted us with a new day…a whole day to help heal the world, wreak havoc in it, whatever we might choose to do with these precious hours. God is trusting us.
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Seven Days or Seven Years: Why Don’t Reform Jews Know?

How long was Jacob married to Leah before he also married Rachel?

This question came up in discussion at Temple Micah‘s Kol Isha group this week concerning Jacob and his wives (Parashat Vayeitzei, primarily). We were confused, since participants had been taught different basic facts: Some remembered clearly being taught as children that Laban demanded seven more years of work before Jacob was allowed, finally, to marry Rachel; others could quote easily, “just complete the bridal week of this one” and were sure Jacob married Rachel a week after marrying Leah. Why this discrepancy?

With a little research, we eventually learned more about the discrepancy and its textual base. What we did not learn was why recent Reform translations — and perhaps those used in religious schools of decades past — view Jacob’s marriage chronology differently than so many others.

Here are some current translations for Genesis/Breishit 29:27-28.
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Bechukotai: Something to Notice

“To the last, Parashat Bechukotai challenges us,” writes R. Elizabeth Bolton in “Mir Zaynen Do — We Are Here,” an essay in the The Women’s Torah Commentary:*

If the text excludes us when we are not named, then should we include ourselves in such passages as blessings and curses? Surely contemporary Jewish praxis would look different if we read the covenanting passages as excluding or exempting a whole class of Jews. And yet this has been the experience of many Jewish women, who have searched in vain for a reflection of themselves in Torah, particularly once thy move beyond the family narratives of Genesis and the nation-founding narratives of Exodus….

Can a feminist rereading of Bechukotai and other Torah with difficult theological implications help reconfigure a healthy relationship with brit (covenant) for girls, women, Jews by choice, lesbian and gay Jews, Jews with disabilities and all who question the notion of a Divine figure and punishes?

It can, and it must, for the simple reason that we were all there.

We were at Sinai, we witnessed the Temple’s destruction, we stood at the abyss of history and we are here. — Bolton, pp. 251-252


Note: Bolton has served, for the last nine years, as rabbi to Congregation Beit Tikvah in Baltimore, a congregation advertising welcome to “families, interfaith couples and individuals regardless of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Our building is wheelchair accessible.” (A former opera singer, she also directs the Jewish Reconstructionist Federations’ music and liturgy program.)


Women, Vayikra and Progress

Bolton published the above essay in 2000. In it she references, among other sources, Ellen Frankel’s 1996 The Five Books of Miriam.*

By situating a women’s response to issues of suffering in the voices of Rachel (who suffered), Lilith (who was excluded), and ourselves (“our” daughters and mothers), Frankel expands the window frame, enabling us to see the larger picture of women in the Bible leaning to, and including, our generation and those to come. — Bolton, p.250

By commenting on Frankel’s work, Bolton makes a place for women’s scholarship and feminist commentary before her own. By including a variety of commentary, from women and men over the centuries, she places her own remarks within the wider context of millenial-old Torah discussion.

In the 1997 collection Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,* several authors grapple with food, sexuality and other issues relating to holiness of body and soul in the essays on Vayikra. Rachel Adler re-examines her own 1972 (Jewish Catalogue) publication on mikveh and describes the many ways in which her thinking had evolved in 25 years:

…It seemed inadequate to tell them I had changed my mind….I did not know how to be accountable to the people who had learned from me. I had never heard a theologian say that he or she had been wrong….

…I thought that God’s Torah was as complete as God: Inerrant, invulnerable, invariable truth….hard as I tried to make it truthful, it unfolded itself to me as a theology of lies.

…Sacred need not be inerrant [as believed in 1972]; it is enough for the sacred to be inexhaustible. In the depths of Your Torah, I seek You out, Eheyeh, creator of a world of blood. I tear Your Torah verse from verse, until it is broken and bleeding just like me. Over and over I find You in the bloody fragments. Beneath even the woman-hating words of Ezekiel I hear You breathing, “In your blood, live.” — Adler, pp.204-206

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (TWC)* on the other hand, highlights the following and similar sentiments:

“This book [Leviticus] shows how women contribute to Israel’s quest for a holy life.”

“The legislation in this parashah [Vayikra] applies equally to Israelite women and men.”

“This troubling passage [opening words of Tazria] can be understood as a way to promote God’s loving community.”

Not much tearing of Torah, verse by verse, here.

TWC does sometimes engage deeply with gender issues in its Vayikra commentary — “Contemporary Views” from Judith Plaskow and Elyse Goldstein, for example. References to previous works of feminist scholarship are almost non-existent, however. And rarely does the verse-by-verse commentary include a citation of any kind.

Having used TWC since beginning this blog series a year ago, my experience has been — overall, with some valuable exceptions — akin to this:

You’re participating in a meeting where an important and difficult point is hashed out for some time. Then, someone at the far end of the table — perhaps hard-of-hearing or maybe focusing elsewhere — raises one of the initial points as though it were a new idea: It’s disrespectful to all who spoke earlier — especially those who really grappled with some difficult things — frustrating at best for all participating, and no way to progress.

I wish it were possible to make TWC part of a larger conversation, but I don’t see that happening….yet.


* Please see Source Materials for full citation and additional information.

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The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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Kedoshim: A Path to Follow

A college friend and sailing fan once told me a story about a sailor who was about to win a ’round-the-world-solo race when he tacked away from harbor and, returning to open ocean, headed around again.

On May 20, 2009, I had a kind of fit and decided to launch “Torah: Opening the Book” on this blog. I began the four-posts/portion series with “Bamidbar,” the first portion in the book of Numbers/Bamidbar. At a number of points in the last year, I have looked forward to completing the task I so impetuously established for myself. However, I recently looked at a calendar and realized that there are only three more portions — two more weeks in this non-leap-year reading cycle — before we complete the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. So…

…Pull into harbor? Continue around? Sail a different sea?
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Unintentional Soul-Fail: Pursuing Connections

Leviticus/Vayikra chapter 4 opens with a “soul” involved in an “unintentional” “failure.” Vayikra: Language and Translation offers five translations, with their associated notes and commentaries. For anyone seeking a drash [investigation] point, this could be a good spot to begin: What might it mean for a soul to fail unintentionally? And what, if anything, can be done about it now that we have no sacrificial system?

In his “Seven Approaches,” Richard Israel warns beginners:

Unless you are basing yourself on a traditional commentator, stay away from forms like Microscope or Puzzle [language- and detail-oriented dvar Torah models] until you know enough Hebrew to be able to distinguish between a real nuance in the text and a mere idiosyncrasy of translation.

This is useful advise. But I’ll pass along one short-cut that I’ve found in discovering spots where commentators have for centuries discussed alternative meanings.
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