New Torah commentary not just for women


NEW YORK — Last month marked the debut of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, which brings together the scholarship and insights of women from all segments of the Jewish community and from around the world.

For the past two years, in advance of the commentary’s publication, I have previewed drafts in congregations across the country. Inevitably, when I conclude my teaching, a male member of the audience raises his hand and asks one of the following questions:

Advertisement: The Grande at Chesterfield

“Why should men be interested in a women’s Torah commentary?”

“Why would you create a commentary that only speaks to half of the community?”

“In this day and age, shouldn’t we create a work that brings together women and men instead of segregating them?”

For much of the long and illustrious history of Jewish biblical exegesis, commentaries have been written by men. Such commentaries typically aim to elucidate the plain sense of the text and make the Bible meaningful for subsequent generations. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary strives to do the same.

To achieve these goals, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary presents five forms of commentary for each Torah portion. The “Central Commentary” contains the Hebrew text and a gender-accurate English translation, along with a verse-by-verse explanation of the biblical text, highlighting female characters and issues involving women.

A shorter, “Another View” essay focuses on a specific element in the parsha in a way that complements, supplements or sometimes challenges the “Central Commentary.” The “Post-Biblical Interpretations” section gathers teachings from rabbinic writings and classical Jewish commentaries, showing how traditional Jewish sources responded to texts pertaining to women.

A more philosophical essay called “Contemporary Reflection” explores various aspects of the Torah portion and challenges readers to consider how it speaks to us as contemporary Jews. Finally, the “Voices” section offers a collection of creative responses to the portion, mainly poetry.

No one questions why women should read a Torah commentary written by men; for the longest time, that is all we had. So why should anyone ask whether or not men should read a Torah commentary written by women?

If a Torah commentary sheds light on the biblical text and its enduring meaning, should anyone wonder about its relevance for both women and men? If a commentary showcases the most up-to-date research on the Bible and ancient Israel, offers insightful readings of the biblical text and wrestles with its complexities, should anyone doubt its value for all those who study Torah?

The new commentary does not seek to supplant existing Torah commentaries but to supplement them, adding an array of new voices to our collective conversation about the Torah.

Take one brief example from Naomi Steinberg’s “Central Commentary” in the Parsha Vayigash. Steinberg observes that the story of the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers “presents a study in the human capacity for lasting change” and the importance of forgiveness.

How can we explain the transformation we witness in Judah? Steinberg answers this question by speculating on the effect of Judah’s earlier encounter with his daughter-in-law Tamar, who deceived Judah in order to become pregnant.

She writes: “While not mentioned in this parashah, Tamar has been a pivotal figure in Judah’s own growth. Their encounter in Genesis 38 best accounts for Judah’s new capacity to sympathize with his father.”

Last month, the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion featured a panel of scholars gathered to celebrate the publication of the women’s commentary and to reflect on its significance. One of the panelists was the renowned Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow, the author of the influential 1990 book Standing Again at Sinai, a contributor to the commentary and a member of its editorial board.

Plaskow characterized the publication of the commentary as a “watershed event,” perhaps as important as the ordination of the first woman rabbi. When she used the word “watershed,” she referred to the figurative meaning of the word: an event or period marking a turning point in a course of actions or state of affairs.

How is the publication of this commentary a turning point? One answer to that question became clear when the panel ended and I spoke to one of our authors, a Bible professor who wrote one of the “Central Commentaries” in Leviticus.

The professor said she did not fully appreciate the significance of this project until she taught the commentary she wrote to the Sisterhood group at her local synagogue. She explained that for the first time, many of the women saw themselves as part of the implicit audience of the Torah. They were no longer bystanders listening in on a conversation aimed at someone else. Instead, they sensed that the Torah was speaking to and about them. They were able to see how the text was relevant to them as contemporary women and how their lives as women were relevant to the interpretation of the biblical text.

On a literal level, a watershed is an area of land that channels all the streams and rainfall to a common outlet. This is, in fact, an ideal metaphor for A Women’s Commentary.

This volume gathers five forms of exegesis into a single location. It collects the wisdom of several hundred Jewish women — scholars, clergy, poets and other writers — into one place. It assembles the writings of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox and secular Jews into a common source.

As women and men study its words, it has the potential to bring people together, enriching our evolving understanding of our most sacred text.

Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss is assistant professor of Bible at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and associate editor of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. The commentary was initiated and funded by the Women of Reform Judaism and published by URJ Press. It was unveiled officially this week at the Union for Reform Judaism biennial in San Diego.