This December, at its 46th Assembly in San Diego, Women of Reform Judaism will release The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, written solely by women, as a companion to The Torah: A Modern Commentary (both URJ Press). RJ editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer interviewed Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, HUC-JIR Professor of Bible and editor of the new commentary.
What was the genesis of this Torah commentary?
In 1993, at the 39th WRJ Assembly, Cantor Sarah Sager challenged the Women of Reform Judaism to get serious about reclaiming Torah: “Imagine women feeling permitted, for the first time, feeling able, feeling legitimate in their study of Torah. And imagine Sisterhood as the empowering agent for this transformation of what is and what should be.” WRJ responded by raising over $1.4 million to fund the commentary.
Did you consider including male writers?
We thought hard and long about whether or not to include men, but since there were more women’s voices than we could accommodate and we believed women’s scholarship needed to be more available, we decided women should be given priority.
Is the commentary written from a woman’s perspective?
Our commentary is written from many “women’s perspectives,” representing different approaches that women use for exploring the Bible. Contributors were asked to look at issues concerning women, either because women are in the text or are missing and should be in the text, but as a whole our commentary has a broader focus.
Broader in what way?
It includes the Hebrew and English text and commentary on the entirety of the Torah, not only fragments of it. It is organized by Torah portions, and every portion has five distinct layers. In the first layer, the central or main commentary, a biblical scholar comments on the entire parashah while also examining issues concerning women. The second layer, “Another View,” also by a biblical scholar, focuses on one aspect of the Torah portion, supplementing or challenging the central commentary. For example, in Parashat Noach, which mainly discusses the flood but ends with a mention of Sarah’s barrenness, Dr. Carol Meyers looks at how ancient societies dealt with barrenness. The third layer, “Post-Biblical Interpretations,” written by a scholar in the field of rabbinic literature, discusses what rabbis in the Talmud, Midrash, and beyond say about the particular parashah, concentrating on women. The fourth layer, “Contemporary Reflection,” is written by women scholars, including theologians, historians, philosophers, rabbis, cantors, and educators. For example, Judith Plaskow observes that we can use the list of forbidden sexual relationships in Leviticus 18 as a starting point for raising hard questions about our own values. “What should be included on a list of forbidden and permitted relationships today?” The fifth layer, “Voices,” is composed mostly of poems written by Jewish women about issues raised in the biblical text. Leviticus 12 (in Parashat Tazria), for example, prescribes the process of purification a woman must undergo after giving birth in order for her to approach the sanctuary again; in our commentary, Esther Ettinger’s poem “Believe Me” describes a woman who has just given birth:
I don’t want to ease over the agony and the blood
only to tell you she was
the essence of beauty
becoming elation when the child
was placed on her belly.
And I who stood there cried with him, a first cry
clean of joy, clean of pain.
Is this the first Jewish women’s Torah commentary?
There have been other women’s commentaries—for example, In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah, written by Judith S. Antonelli, and A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein. Although each is wonderful in its own way, none of them does what we’re doing. In the Antonelli commentary, for example, biblical and rabbinic interpretations are interwoven; and in the Goldstein commentary each section is written by one woman rabbi. In contrast, our commentary examines the entire parashah from multiple perspectives and brings together not only the insights of women clergy but also women’s scholarship in an array of relevant academic fields. In addition, we focus on women’s daily lives in antiquity, based on the latest research on the subject.
Is this a Reform Torah commentary?
While it’s sponsored by WRJ and published by URJ Press, our more than 100 writers represent the full spectrum of Judaism: Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, and secular. Ours is a women’s commentary, not a partisan commentary, but its content is consistent with Reform Judaism—among other things, it welcomes a wide range of interpretation, it values the voices and contributions of women, and it represents scholarly study of Torah along with traditional readings and contemporary commentary.
Does a female perspective on the Torah differ from that of a male?
It’s a complex question. I can’t say that women look at the text differently because sometimes they don’t. But when we look empirically at what happens when women and men examine the Torah, their interpretations and translations often differ. At the very least, women often focus on different aspects of the text. For example, in Parashat Pinchas we take a closer look than other commentaries do on the significance of the five sisters—Mahlah, Noah, Milcah, Hoglah, and Tirzah—whose actions initiate a new law of inheritance for daughters.
Please give us an example of a biblical portion whose translation has had profound gender implications.
Take the story about the first woman and man. The best-known and oldest English translation of the Bible, the King James Version of 1611, translated Genesis 3:16–17 accurately: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children...” (Genesis 3:16). “And unto Adam he said...cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it...” (Genesis 3:17). Later translations, however, intensified the hardship of the woman while toning down that of the man. Thus the New Revised Standard Version translation (1989) reads: “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children,...’ And to the man he said, ‘...cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it....’” Using the words “pangs” and “pain” gives the impression that woman is meant to suffer, while translating the very same Hebrew word as “toil” when it comes to the man gives the impression that the man only has to work hard. Our commentary makes it clear that God’s pronouncements hold the woman and man equally responsible.
Also, in describing why and how the woman eats the forbidden fruit, many older translations simply used to say, “...she also gave some to her husband and he ate,” which gives the impression that the woman brought the fruit from the forbidden tree to the man, who didn’t know its source. In fact, the Hebrew says, “she gave some to her husband, who was with her [immah], and he ate,” which makes it clear that the man had been at woman’s side all along. Interestingly, the Torah discloses the woman’s motives for eating the forbidden fruit—it’s nutritious, attractive, and a source of wisdom—but offers no motive for why the man transgresses. Our commentary not only points out these differences but explains how the differences inform our interpretation.
How will this commentary be used?
We would like to see it in the pews of all Progressive synagogues, in Jewish homes, and in academic circles. Our commentary is for women and men, for Jews and non-Jews. It gives voice to part of the Jewish community that has not been heard enough. For a long time, many women have felt the Torah didn’t fully speak to or for them and that women had no role in transmitting its messages. It’s my hope that this commentary will empower them to go further in their Torah study—inspiring them to declare, "This is ours."
The Making of | The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
1993: Cantor Sarah Sager challenges WRJ to commission a Jewish women’s Torah commentary.
1995: A group of scholars, clergy, and WRJ board members vote unanimously to recommend the project’s adoption to the WRJ board of directors.
1999: WRJ publishes Beginning the Journey Toward a Women’s Commentary, commentaries on four parashiot.
2001: HUC-JIR Professor Tamara Cohn Eskenazi is selected as editor.
2005: Dr. Andrea Weiss joins the project as associate editor.
2006: 15,000 people participate in a day of Torah study using Parashat Chayei Sarah from the upcoming commentary.
2007: WRJ and the URJ Press release The Torah: A Women’s Commentary at the Biennial.