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Books CCAR Press Torah

Abortion and Reproductive Justice: A Jewish Perspective

In light of the recent Texas anti-abortion law that has gone into effect, we are sharing this excerpt about reproductive justice from The Social Justice Torah Commentary, forthcoming in November 2021 from CCAR Press.

A study by the Pew Research Center found that 83 percent of American Jews say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.1 American Jews’ widespread support for permissive abortion laws finds grounding in Jewish tradition’s approach to pregnancy and its end. Though the Torah makes no specific reference to any process resembling a modern abortion, the following passage from Parashat Mishpatim provides our tradition’s earliest guidance on the termination of a pregnancy:

When individuals fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21:22–25)

The passage contrasts two scenarios in which two men are fighting and accidentally strike a nearby pregnant woman. The permutations differ only in who or what is harmed. In the first, only the fetus is lost, and the punishment is a monetary fine, paid to the woman’s husband. In the second, the woman herself is harmed or killed. There, the punishment is retributive: an eye for an eye and a nefesh—literally, “soul,” but in this case meaning a human life possessing personhood—for a nefesh. From this, we may derive the principle that a woman has the full status of a person, nefesh, while the fetus—though valued—has a lesser status.

The Mishnah expands this understanding of differential value by stating that if a woman’s life is threatened in childbirth, the fetus inside her can be destroyed, even to the point of “taking it out limb from limb, for her life comes before the fetus’s life.”2 Through the graphic language of this text, the Mishnaic author leaves no ambiguity as to whose life takes precedence. This text sets the standard from which all other halachah (Jewish law) on abortion flows. Later commentators debate in great detail the implications of this text, particularly the breadth or narrowness of the definition of a threat to the life of the woman.3 Some are more permissive of a range of emotional as well as physical impacts that could justify an abortion, while others understand the instances of permissibility with excruciating parsimony. Still, from the outset, Judaism can imagine some instances when an abortion would be permitted and even required.4

Furthermore, the Gemara concludes that prior to forty days, a fetus is not a person but rather is considered “mere water.”5  The debate about abortion in America hinges on questions related to what constitutes personhood and when life begins. But these are religious and spiritual questions, about which people of faith and conviction can disagree.

The Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade that abortion is protected under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guarantees a right to privacy, including a right to private medical procedures. For American Jews, the protection of access to abortion could also be understood under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause. Because Jewish law permits abortion under certain circumstances as a morally acceptable choice, or even in some cases a halachic requirement, any law that limits a woman’s right to choose might limit a Jewish woman’s ability to make a decision in accordance with her religious beliefs. When people of faith seek to adopt laws asserting when life begins, they endeavor to enshrine their own religious understanding in law. In civic discourse, the fact that Judaism understands these issues differently can be a powerful antidote to the pervasive sense that religious voices are only to be found on one side of this debate. Judaism is unequivocally “pro-life” in that it values life in all its forms, both actualized and potential. But where that term has come to mean “anti-abortion,” then it is clear that Judaism allows for abortion under at least some circumstances and therefore calls us to advocate for civil laws that protect a woman’s right to access abortion services.

These texts and their subsequent interpretations are a vital resource for all of us who seek to affirm Jewish support for the choice to terminate a pregnancy and to advocate from a Jewish perspective for laws that protect reproductive choice. And we are called to go further; the law is only one facet of a full and holistic justice. Even as Parashat Mishpatim guides us to a choice-oriented understanding of abortion law, it also leaves us with the injustice of a silenced story.

The text in Exodus 21 begins with an act of violence perpetrated against a pregnant woman, and yet this woman is all but absent from subsequent conversation about this passage. Across the centuries, almost all of the voices of Jewish interpretation, and even many modern commentators, fail to acknowledge her story. The interpreters miss the opportunity to see her as subject, rather than object. To see the woman in this text as merely a hypothetical in a legal case study is to deny that cases such as these were very real to the people who experienced them. To reach a full sense of justice in our understanding of abortion, we must pair mishpatim (laws) with sipurim (stories). …

The full chapter by Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixler and Rabbi Emily Langowitz appears in The Social Justice Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block. To learn more and pre-order the book, visit socialjustice.ccarpress.org.


1. Pew Research Center, “Views about Abortion among Jews,” Religious Landscape Study, 2014, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape- study/religious-tradition/jewish/views-about-abortion/.

2. Mishnah Ohalot 7:6.

3. We recognize the complexity of this term and acknowledge that it is not only women who experience pregnancy and abortion and also that not all women can experience pregnancy. We offer this word for simplicity but intend it to include a broad range of experiences and identities.

4. Many trace the split between lenient and strict positions to Rashi and Maimonides, respectively. See Rashi’s comment on Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzei-ach Ushmirat Nefesh 1:9. Rashi defines the fetus as non-nefesh (in keeping with our passage in Exodus), while Maimonides focuses his discussion on the fetus as a rodeif (meaning only if the fetus is actively pursuing the life of the mother should the pregnancy be terminated). For fuller discussion of the halachic texts that flow from each side, see Daniel Schiff, Abortion in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

5. Babylonian Talmud, Y’vamot 69b.


Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixler serves as the associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas.

Rabbi Emily Langowitz serves as program manager for Jewish learning and engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.

Categories
Books News Prayer

B’chol L’vavcha: Renewing a Classic

Rarely does one have the opportunity to create a new edition of a book many in our movement have grown up with: B’chol L’vavcha: With All Your Heart: A Commentary on the Prayer Book, the beloved magnum opus of Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, z’’l, who was a rabbi, teacher, and friend to many Reform rabbis, cantors, and congregants alike. His warm, clear, and accessible writing provided introductions to and meditations on the major prayers of the previous Reform siddur, Gates of Prayer, for adults, teens, and children—equally useful in adult education, bar and bat mitzvah preparation, and religious school.

And it still does. However, the third edition of B’chol L’vavcha, just released by CCAR Press, adds new layers of learning and teaching to the familiar book. Many female and queer rabbis and teachers have found their way onto the pages as commentators; the book itself is the product of the labors of one Reform cantor, Sarah Grabiner, and two Reform rabbis, Hilly Haber and myself. Many contemporary poems and prayers have been added to bring diversity, new depths, new meanings, and new Torah to the familiar liturgy. Newly added sections—Kiddush and Havdalah—reflect today’s reality in which we, as Reform Jews, do not pray only in our synagogues, but just as often in our homes, particularly during the past pandemic year. However, perhaps the most basic but also the most remarkable change is the shift from the language and layout of Gates of Prayer to the words and aesthetics of Mishkan T’filah, making the third edition the perfect companion for any teaching on prayer, including iyunei t’filah.

Let me give you two examples:

Accompanying the Sh’ma, you will find this prayerful version by Rabbi Emily Langowitz:

Sh’ma Listen.

Yisrael God-struggler.

Adonai Was-Is-WillBe

Eloheinu Is our God

Adonai Was-Is-WillBe

Echad Is One.

Listen, God-struggler. Was-Is-WillBe is a reflection of my own divinity. Was-Is-WillBe, the One who moves the universe, the One who knows that being can never be static, the One in whose image I am made, bears witness to my own unity.

I give thanks to that Spirit of life who allows for the continued revelation of self.

I marvel at the wonder of sexuality unfolding.

I lift up the truth of all the ways I have loved, do love, will love.

.בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ יָהּ, אַחְדוּת הָעוֹלָם, שֹֹֹֹּּּּוֹמַעַת הָאֱמֶת

B’ruchah at Yah, achdut ha-olam, shomaat ha-emet.

Blessed are You, Oneness of the world, who hears my Truth.[1]

And the book closes with a moving reflection by Rabbi Andrea Weiss, PhD, Provost at HUC-JIR:

Lech L’cha

Go forth on a journey.

Go by yourself.

Standing at a crossroad

You venture from the known to the unknown.

Some journeys must be made alone.

Go to yourself:

Spiral inward and unwrap your past

And your potential.

Remember that the soul which you have made

Is unique and holy.

Go for yourself:

Smell the fragrance

Which spread across the land

As you roam and wander.

Refresh yourself

Under the tree which grows by a spring

At the side of the road.

Make your name great and

Make your life a blessing.[2]

Go and have a look at this book, so that it can accompany you and your people on your journeys!


Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, is the Editor at CCAR Press.


[1] Previously published in Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells , edited by Rabbi Denise Eger (New York: CCAR Press, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Emily Langowitz.

[2] Previously published in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: CCAR Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008). Copyright © 2008 by Andrea Weiss.

Categories
Torah

True, Whether It Happened or Not

Critics hate the scene. It’s manufactured. It never happened. Fake news.

I’m talking about the episode in The Darkest Hour, when Winston Churchill, brilliantly portrayed by Gary Oldman, abandons his chauffeur-driven car in a traffic jam and takes his maiden voyage on London’s Underground to get to a cabinet meeting on time. There, he interacts with ordinary citizens who buttress the Prime Minister’s faith that surrender is not an option. The British people would rather fight to their own deaths than subjugate themselves to the Nazi monster.

No, Churchill didn’t take the Underground. Still, the encounter is true. Prime Minister Churchill was indeed inspired by the resolve of ordinary British subjects. History’s largest civilian sea evacuation of a military force at Dunkirk — compellingly portrayed in two films this year, both Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour — proves the point. The British people were truly willing to risk their lives to save themselves and their island from tyranny.

I have often taught that “truth” and “historical accuracy” are not the same thing. Torah, rather than contemporary film, has typically been my text. Take, for example, two different midrashim, rabbinic interpretations, of God’s revelation and the Children of Israel’s acceptance of Torah. In one, the Holy One offers Torah to one nation after the other. Each nation asks what’s in it, quickly rejecting Torah because of its prohibition of murder, stealing, and the like. Only Israel welcomes Torah without question. Another midrash, on the other hand, imagines that God lifts Mount Sinai off its foundation, holding the entire mountain over the Israelites’ heads, threatening to bury them under it if they will not accept Torah.

Did either version of these events actually happen? Did the rabbis even imagine that they had? No. The rabbis weren’t writing history. They were teaching religious truths. One midrash argues that there are times when we must proceed on faith alone, following a God Who has earned our trust. The other acknowledges that Torah can be a burden which we may be hard-pressed to observe.

I understand why the reviewers abhor The Darkest Hour’s Underground scene. Truth is under assault in America today. National leaders eagerly purvey falsehoods to reinforce the narratives they want our population to embrace. Our prayer book is among the many Jewish sources that extol truth, insisting that it’s “first and last.”

The Darkest Hour doesn’t pretend to be a documentary. It’s not a history book with footnotes. Instead, it’s a work of art, creatively portraying an historical period to teach timeless truths. We might call it midrash.

As we journey the Book of Exodus, and extending through Passover, we may be repeatedly subjected to arguments about whether the Exodus ever happened. Rabbi David Wolpe, who (in)famously gave a sermon suggesting that it had not, faced a Herculean task in the December 24 New York Times, reviewing a new book that claims that at least some version of the Exodus did happen, The Exodus, by Richard Elliot Friedman.

The Exodus, like Churchill’s descent to the Underground, might never have happened. The story, though, is indisputably true. God is our hope and our salvation, assigning to the Jewish people a Moses-like responsibility to partner with the Holy One to bring liberation to all the world. That’s true, whether it happened or not.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Categories
gender equality

When the Torah Calls Out #MeToo: Confronting Our Objectionable Texts

Perhaps you are like me – stumbling through my days in a perpetual state of exhaustion. It could be for many reasons: long hours of work, the weight from our personal lives due to matters we are facing individually, and, perhaps even weightier, issues our loved ones are facing, which we can’t help but carry with us. We are exhausted from the human and natural disasters in our immediate communities, in our nation, and lands across oceans; the tentacles of these tragedies reach as close as the smart phones in our pockets, and the news alerts literally flashing before our eyes, even as we close them in sleep.

It’s probably time for a very long nap.

Unfortunately, sleeping through life is not an option. One of my strategies for gathering energy is to heed our tradition’s call to Torah. Often, I experience the text as a source of sustenance and strength. This week’s portion, Vayera, is a rich collection of legend and lesson, but it does contain a pericope that threatened to deplete my already low reserves, as it is both distasteful and shockingly relevant: the second episode when Abraham passes off Sarah as his sister in return for his safety and for profit. In and of itself, this episode is highly disturbing. But here we are, tackling it for a second week in a row. Facing it again is an exhausting task, especially knowing that we will only have a week of relief before encountering it for yet a third time, when we turn to Toldot and confront Abraham’s son, Isaac, committing the same atrocity against his wife, Rebecca.

There are plenty of objectionable texts scattered throughout our sacred literature, but somehow this motif has always felt particularly offensive to me. Maybe those of you with Biblical names share with me a sense of personal investment in your namesake; Sarah’s narratives tug at me with an almost familiar grip. It could also be that, unlike other troubling texts, this one comes at us again and again and again. This thudding repetition is a searing reminder of the ugly misogyny embedded in our tradition. This year, it carries a more deeply resounding echo, coming in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, amid the scores of declarations surging forth. The description of Abraham’s growing accumulation of wealth and his continuing rise in stature, emerging from the exploitation of Sarah’s body, palpably repulses me. I hear in Abraham’s weak protestation that he felt endangered, in his deflection claiming the people of Gerar don’t fear Adonai, in his irrelevant explanation that Sarah actually is his sister (sort of), echoes of Weinstein’s nauseating attempt at an apology: he is suffering from an illness, he is a product of a different normative reality, he really does respect women and support women.

I recognize that this text was written in ancient times, with different social mores and gender roles. But this is not a justification. The bulk of the Torah, including passages buttressing this incident, completely upend norms, voicing calls for radical theological and moral change. The Torah is a force for good.

It may feel wrong for me to compare Harvey Weinstein to Avraham Avinu. I was sickened thinking this, and questioned whether I should articulate it. But we can’t avoid discomfort any longer. The fact is, this text makes me feel marginalized and injured by our tradition. And if a desire to protect what we love and who we are dissuades me from sharing this truth, or prevents others from hearing it, we are not going to get anywhere in tackling the issues that our community – Abraham and Sarah’s very descendants – are living in this moment. If we can’t struggle with the reporting of Abraham’s offense, how can we find the courage to face what has been said about Elie Weisel, what has been admitted by Leon Weiseltier? And if we can’t open ourselves to recognizing the misdeeds of our heroes, our teachers, how will we be able to in any way tolerate dealing with violations committed by our colleagues and friends? How will we be able to be honest in facing our own acts of silence and complicity?

The Talmud teaches, “ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim – the actions of the fathers are signals to the sons.” Isaac is evidence that no matter what the historical or cultural context, turning away from what is ugly and hiding what is unjust and immoral, will reinforce instead of resist offensive behavior.

Commentators grapple with this sister/wife motif, but fall short of expressing outrage at Abraham’s behavior. However, the greatest authoritative voice in Jewish tradition has expressed the horror of this episode: the voice of the Torah itself. That this story finds itself in the text not once, not twice, but three times, is a call to attention. What felt to me incessant I now realize is insistent.

Only in facing the distaste I felt for this passage, and in overcoming my fear of publicly addressing it, did I recognize what now seems so obvious. The power and wisdom of our text is that it provokes us to face the worst of who we are with the purpose of instigating us to become the best of who we are.

The retelling of this story – a story still continuing until today – is a reminder that as much as we might be embarrassed or shamed or hurt by a part of our collective history, or even an episode in the personal narrative of our lives, such reportings must not be ignored or pushed into the shadows. We must give voice to them and face their implications.

Charles Blow wrote a column in the New York Times about male privilege saying “Constant outrage is exhausting. . . .  There is no magical solution here for the infinite and permanent expansion of empathy and awareness. It is work: hard work.”

I know we come to this moment tired. But we cannot perpetually sleepwalk through the minefields of our lives. We may encounter the words inked onto our scrolls, and the actions etched into our days, feeling defensive, guarded, exhausted. But we carry with us silos of strength and energy. We are bolstered by the resonant voice of our Torah that incessantly and insistently pushes us towards better, urging us to do the work – the hard work – that is our sacred task.

Rabbi Sarah Reines serves as the interim associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel in NY.

 

Categories
Shavuot Torah

Standing At Sinai

If ever you meet a fellow Jew and you can’t place where you’ve met before, after a game of “Jewish Geography,” you might just concede and say, “well, at least I know we were together at Sinai.”  For it is said, that the souls of ALL Jews (even those who choose Judaism later in life) were together at Mount Sinai to receive and witness the revelation of Torah.

As we rejoice in the holiday of Shavuot- the holiday that commemorates the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, we actually have an opportunity to remind ourselves that the Torah and the wisdom of Judaism continues to be revealed to us each and every day.

Thanks to my friend and mentor, Rabbi Jeff Sirkman I have learned to call any moment of revelation a “Sinai Moment,” in honor of the fact that we all have a chance to “stand at Sinai,” we all can have a sense of revelation that in some way deepens our connection to Torah, our faith and Judaism in general.

Without going into all the “mushy details,” for me, a major “Sinai Moment” in my life came on my second date with my husband. As he stood outside the Karaoke restaurant where we were to meet, I looked up and just felt a sense of revelation- I knew something was different, I knew I was experiencing something incredibly special in my life.  I didn’t know what exactly, but I knew something was being revealed to me.  Some of you may even be able to pinpoint one or hopefully multiple “Sinai Moments” in your own life.  Was it the birth of a child? Or when, thank God, you overcame something terrible in your life? Or was it something else?

Right now and at all times we should be open to witnessing a “Sinai Moment.” At this very moment, each of us can live out the words expressed in Deuteronomy 29:14, and be like our elders who stood at Sinai and those who weren’t there, but still accept Torah. We can make the decision to accept Torah, in that we must take on the challenge to live out what it means to be Jewish and to be part of a community, in whatever way it is revealed to you.

Like all of the souls at Sinai, we need to actively accept the yoke of being a Jew and being part of a community. Together it is up to us to do our part to remember the past, celebrate the present, and secure the future of Judaism by being open to “Sinai Moments” and all moments of Revelation.

Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov serves Temple Anshe Hesed in Erie, PA.  She also blogs about the recent loss of her father at www.kaddishformydad.com

Categories
Holiday Reform Judaism spirituality Torah

When Torah Becomes “Mine”

That look in their eyes when, for the first time in their lives, Torah is placed in their arms, is precious.

In that moment, they realize that they are cradling the Jewish story. They recognize that what was once at arm’s length, is now quite literally in their arms. They become Moses or Miriam, or Michael or Mandy, standing again at Mt. Sinai, receiving Judaism’s most sacred text.

Each year on Simchat Torah, it happens.

After we unroll the entire Torah scroll around the sanctuary.

After we read the end of Deuteronomy.

After we review the five books of our people, highlighting the most poignant stories and Torah’s most abiding Jewish values.

After we return to the beginning again to read the opening words of Genesis.

Then, the celebration of Torah leads to Kabbalat Torah, the receiving of the gift of Torah: Those priceless moments when someone holds Torah from the first time and finds herself right there in shalshelet hakabbalah, the unbroken chain of transmission of Torah.

Sometimes it is an older woman whose synagogue back then did not allow girls to become bat mitzvah. Or an Israeli secularist who once saw Torah as the province of only an entrenched Orthodox political establishment. Or a college student coming back to Judaism after dropping out too early. Or poignantly a Holocaust survivor who missed out on receiving Torah before the world darkened around him. Or a Jew by choice choosing to embrace a new people. Or a ger toshav, a non-Jew who has dedicated her life to raising their children in the Jewish faith. Or the multicultural Jew whose skin color once made her feel unwelcome in the synagogue. Or the older gay man who for the longest time thought he was written out of the story.

For each of them, the progression – so delicious – is similar. Always, it reaffirms the power and poignancy of our most sacred Jewish text.

First comes the worry, a split second of terror: Am I holding it right? Will I be the one to drop it? What happens if I drop it?

Then comes a reassuring sense of calm: I’ve got this. I can hold this. I am doing this.

Then the amazement: I have Torah in my arms. I am holding Torah. Me.

Then the dancing: Look at me. Torah and me. Together. As one. I am part of its story. And it’s story is part of me.

Round and round the Torah goes, in and out of the circle of dancers. In and out of the arms of the community. In and out of the lives of its adherents.

Some might come back for Torah study. Some might disappear until next Simchat Torah. But all leave refreshed and renewed, having once again stood at Sinai and received the Torah.

Some love the unrolling of Torah. Others value the return to the beginning. But me? I love those moments when the public becomes the personal and for yet another person Torah becomes “mine.”

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

Categories
Books Torah

Teaching Chumash Skills using The Torah: A Modern Commentary

The Chumash, which I used when I first began to learn Torah in-depth, has a special place on my shelf.  The notes on its pages are invaluable, not just for their information, but also as a connection to a time in my past and to the teachers with whom I learned, among them Rabbi Judith Abrams, z”l, whose lesson about the words and letters of the Priestly Benediction remain an important part of my kavannah whenever I bless someone with them.

When I arrived at my congregation, there was a religious school book list which asked our 7th-graders to purchase a Chumash. Though, I would soon learn that they never used it or learned how to use it.

If we want the Chumash to be a meaningful tome with which our students connect, and if we hope that it does more than gather dust on a shelf, we need to teach our students to engage with it and make meaning.

I don’t necessarily anticipate the same kind of connection from our students that we as clergy may have with a Chumash.  But, the hope is that by engaging with the Chumash they will gain a connection to it.  This cannot happen if a wrapped copy is handed to them on the bimah and put into the backseat of the car on the way to their party.

Using a Chumash is a skill that has to be learned.product_image - Copy

At my weekly Torah study, I noticed that many of those attending didn’t fully understand the jargon nor did they possess the skills needed to navigate a Chumash.  In fact, many seemed intimidated by it.  So together we learned how it works and how to use it.  It’s important not to take for granted the facility we have with a Chumash.  For many of our congregants, odds are they have rarely opened or even seen a Chumash outside of the sanctuary. All the more so our b’nei mitzvah!

So, what do we do?  First, we transitioned to the Plaut (Torah: A Modern Commentary) Chumash both in our sanctuary and on our book list.  This sends a message that as a congregation, we use a commentary to which congregants and students can relate.  Next, we needed to work within the religious school to make use of this book we asked families to purchase.

In addition, beginning a couple of years ago, the Chumash became a textbook for the 7th-grade.  I introduce it to the students when together we pick the verses from their Torah portion which they will chant.  I show them the book, discuss why it’s titled: “A Modern Commentary,” and use the maps to help them see where their portion takes place.  Then I use the structural outline from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary to help them pick the section they will read when they are called to the Torah.  Not incidentally, I also ask why they think that the second volume is called “A Women’s Commentary” and explain that almost every other commentary on my shelf was written by a man, and so these two volumes work together to give a complete, multi-faceted, modern approach to Torah that values everyone’s input.

When they reach their 7th-grade classrooms, they use the Chumash in a few different ways and for a few purposes.  First, they use it to learn more about their parashah and where it falls in the context of the Torah, ultimately creating a story board of their entire parashah.  They also learn Chumash skills.  How does one read this book with Hebrew and English and columns?  How do we talk about something in the Torah in a way that everyone understands and everyone can find?  What are chapters and what are verses and what do they tell us?  Why are there essays?

As a rabbi, it’s quite special when I meet with the students later in the year to work on their divrei Torah and I hear them correctly refer to chapters and verses. This skill is not innate; and it is a skill that I believe all Jews should possess.  Helping our congregants powerfully and confidently engage in Torah is our goal.  Using the Chumash as a central text in our 7th-grade means that our students engage not just in words of Torah, but in the practice of Torah and the art of studying as Jews.

Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum is the Rabbi and Director of Education at Temple Emanu-El of East Meadow, New York.

Categories
Books Torah

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary — A Love Story

It began as many new relationships do:  I was curious but tentative.  How would this new entity fit into my life?  Did I really need it?  Could I make room for it in my over-stuffed brain and on my increasingly crowded bookshelves?

I received The Torah:  A Women’s Commentary as a gift during my fourth year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR.  My professor, Dr. Andrea Weiss, was one of its editors.  Dr. Weiss was thrilled to share this project—into which so much love, care, and scholarship had been poured—with me and my fellow classmates.  Although I accepted the gift with gratitude, I wondered how much I would actually use yet another Torah commentary.  And what about this commentary’s emphasis on women?  I had read—and felt uncomfortable with—ways of approaching the Bible that sought to project the author’s agenda onto the sacred text.

The goal of the Commentary, I learned, was to share “the variety of Torah interpretations, past and present”[1] that would help its users enter the cross-generational conversation that is Torah study.  Its editors wanted to create a commentary that “would help women reclaim Torah by gathering together the scholarship and insights of women across the Jewish spectrum and around the world.”[2]  The Board of Directors of Women of Reform Judaism, which sponsored the project, wanted the commentary to “provide a way into Torah study for women who had previously felt excluded or marginalized.”[3] The Commentary encompassed recent discoveries about the richness and complexity of life in the Ancient Near East.  Its authors and contributors included scholars such as Dr. Ellen Umansky, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, Dr. Carol Meyers, Dr. Judith Hauptman, Dr. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, and Blu Greenberg.  This was my kind of agenda!WTC - Jewish Book Award - Updated

I began to use The Torah: A Women’s Commentary in my studies at HUC-JIR, at my student pulpit, and in my work after ordination.  The way in which the commentary combines traditional rabbinic sources and contemporary scholarship dovetails with my own approach to Torah study.  Each parashah begins with an introduction and outline, which provides an overview of the Torah portion and its themes.  The central commentary, a running exegesis, is patterned after the way commentary is presented in Mikraot G’dolot.  Short essays by contemporary biblical scholars elaborate on or challenge the central commentary’s point of view.  Each parashah includes teachings from rabbinic literature and other commentaries, presented by a scholar of rabbinic literature—sources that I could explore in greater detail on my own if I desired.  I liked each parashah’s contemporary reflection, an essay by a current Jewish scholar, about what meaning the text has for us today.  I was often moved by the voices section, which offers creative interpretations—mostly poetry—of the parashah’s themes.

My relationship with The Torah: A Women’s Commentary entered a new phase when I became one of the writers for its Study Guides. Conceived as part of the original project, the Study Guides are designed to be used in conjunction with the Commentary.  Writing the study guides allowed me to immerse myself in all aspects of the Commentary.  As I prepared each guide, I focused on the overarching themes in each parashah, and sought to understand—with the help of the central commentary—the p’shat of the text.  I thought about the questions I had about the text, and about how I could help those studying the Torah portion to answer these and other questions, using the resources in the Commentary.  With the guidance of Dr. Weiss and Dr. Lisa Grant, editors of the Study Guide project and master teachers of Torah, I learned to ask questions that would help students delve more deeply into the text.  I wrote questions arising from other sections of the Commentary that I hoped would lead to a greater understanding of the biblical text and to how our rabbinic ancestors, contemporary scholars, and poets saw each parashah.  I asked questions that I hoped would allow students using the study guide to think about relationships between the biblical text and their own lives.

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is the commentary to which I turn first—for my own study, when I am preparing a D’var Torah, or when I am getting ready to teach.  It is the Torah commentary that I recommend most frequently to students.

I often use poems from the voices section in my sermons.  Although it is difficult to choose a favorite, this poem by Barbara D. Holender [4] expresses eloquently the joys of immersing ourselves—aided by this wonderful Commentary—in the sacred song that is Torah:

Torah

 

Even when you hold it in your arms,
you have not grasped it.
Wrapped and turned it upon itself
the scroll says, Not yet.

 

Even when you take them into your eyes,
you have not seen them: elegant
in their crowns the letter stand aloof.

 

Even when you taste them in your mouth
and roll them on the tongue
or bite the sharp unyielding strokes
they say, Not yet.

 

And when the sounds pour from your throat
and reach deep into your lungs for breath,
even the words say, Not quite.

 

But when your heart knows its own hunger
and your mind is seized and shaken,
and in the narrow space between the lines
your soul builds its nest,

 

Now, says Torah, now
you begin to understand.

 

 

Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein serves Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, as well as teaches the Introduction to Judaism program for URJ in the DC area. She also was one of the writers of the Study Guides for The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.  Purchase the The Torah:  A Women’s Commentary.

[1] The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “Women and Interpretation of the Torah,” p. xl

[2] The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “Forward,” p. xxv

[3] Ibid

[4] The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “Torah,” p. 1234

Categories
Books Torah

Leading Torah Study: Framing the Message

What does it mean to lead a Torah study?  When we sit with congregants, friends, are guests in different communities, what is it we are doing when we are given the honor to lead a Torah study?  There is something quite amazing that we are doing – we are framing the message for this group. For that short moment in time that we are asked to lead, we are transmitting a concept, idea, ideal or moral teaching that we believe the group needs to hear.  It is a truly powerful moment and the texts, commentaries, works that we bring to the table also convey the message of what our values are or what sources contribute to our very own understanding of the week’s parashah.  For the Torah studies that I lead, I am indebted to a rabbi and teacher who taught me the important lens of gender to bring forth powerful lessons, messages and teachings.

In the Fall of 2011, I found myself sitting in the classroom of Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss.  Within the first ten minutes of her class, I quickly discovered that all I thought that I had learned, all that I thought that I knew about Torah, it was as if I was viewing only half a painting.  I was studying and teaching about an incomplete picture.  From that point on, Dr. Weiss challenged us to try to step back and expand the lenses through which we viewed Torah.  That is, to also use the lens of a woman’s view when studying and teaching Torah.

It is not an easy thing to find one’s understanding of Torah to be so challenged.  Or more simply put, to be told that I had been missing so much in my studies up until that moment.  But in that challenge, I found that it freed me to be willing to engage with our sacred texts in a way that I never had – to appreciate Torah for all of its voices and to see the beauty in the rainbow of Torah interpretation.  And where do we turn to begin this discussion?  For me, it has been and continues to be the WRJ’s The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.WTC - Jewish Book Award - Updated

In the early pages of this work, Drs. Tamara Eskenazi and Andrew Weiss write “In reproducing the variety of Torah interpretations, past and present, we envision our readers joining the centuries-old dialogue through their own personal and communal study.  We hope that The Torah: A Women’s Commentary will inspire and invigorate a lifelong exploration that will go beyond these pages and will shape women and men in our communities well into the future.  In this way, all of us will rightly pay tribute, at last, to the Torah of our mothers and fathers.”

I believe these words to be an important and perhaps even sacred charge for the Torah that I teach and the message that I pass on week to week.  What does this charge practically look like?  For me, it means beginning my Torah studies with the outline that can be found before every parashah in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.  And what happens when I begin the sacred conversation with this outline? Often times, I’ll find a comment or two during, but especially after the formal teaching, where someone will share how they’ve never thought of looking at Torah in this way.  Other times, someone will tell me how the study helped them come to the realization that they’ve never looked at how the generations of commentaries before the last few decades almost all are devoid of a woman’s voice!

womens commentaryTo study Torah in this way slowly began to permeate the other ways in which I have come to understand Judaism and its rituals.  Because of this eye-opening experience, I have been spurred to begin exploring other parts of our tradition for the voices of not only women, but those other silenced minority voices.  I believe that in that class nearly five years ago, Dr. Weiss gave me a gift whose reward benefits not only me, but all who I am grateful to study Torah with during my rabbinate.  The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a work that causes us to ask difficult questions, to look at our Torah in new and exciting ways, and continues the important work of giving voice to all within klal Yisrael.

Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt serves as Assistant Rabbi at Temple Sholom and is a current Pines School of Graduate Studies Doctor of Hebrew Letters student.  Check out Rabbi Weisblatt’s video about The Torah: A Women’s Commentary

Categories
Reform Judaism Technology Torah

Na’Aseh V’Nishma: Podcasting the Aural Torah

In an age of video and universal sensory stimulation, podcasts are a strange niche. They require us to only listen, and as the success of so many of them has shown, there is an audience that wants to only listen. One of the greatest images of the Golden Age of America is the family gathering around the radio to listen – to the news, to the Lone Ranger, maybe even to a surprisingly realistic broadcast of War of the Worlds, with which Orson Welles displayed the true power of the spoken word, sending the population who was unaware of the fiction of the radioplay into a frantic tizzy at the news that aliens had invaded. Listening, as everyone with even the slightest understanding of Judaism knows, is one of the key components of our tradition. “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad,” “Listen, Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”  “We will do, and we will listen,” said the Israelites in acceptance of God’s covenant in Exodus 27:4, effectively founding Judaism.

It is therefore unsurprising that so many people most renowned for their podcasts are Jews: Sarah Koenig of Serial, Robert Krulwich of Radiolab, and the seemingly omnipresent Ira Glass of This American Life, just to name a few. This connection was not lost on us when we set out to make what has become Nü Rabbi, but it certainly added to our confusion as to why (at the time) there were no Progressive Jewish podcasts with similar structure. So, we set out to make one.

Initially, we thought we’d interview the rabbinic luminaries of our Reform world about hard-hitting topics. And then we tried to book those interviews. Needless to say it didn’t work out so well. But while trying to practice our interview and microphone skills on our classmates, we discovered something all the more precious: The voices and opinions of the up-and-coming rabbinical and cantorial students at our school. And thus was born Nü Rabbi – a play on “New Rabbi” and the oft-heard phrase “Nu, Rebbe?” when a particularly insistent question is asked of a Rabbi. In effect, what we have ended up creating is the beginning of a Mishna for our day and age. The Tannaim are ourselves and our classmates – discussing, windingly and in many different manners, some of the most pressing issues of our day. Our first issue was, just like in the Mishna, prayer.

Mahu t’filah?”– what is prayer– we asked ourselves and our colleagues, and the beautiful Torah spilled forth. But this was only the beginning of our journey. We then had to learn the editing software, to commission music and art, to figure out how to make it all flow together into something imminently listenable. As of now, we think we did a pretty good job. Four of our classmates (Stephanie Crawley, Dan Slipakoff, Harriet Dunkerley, and Samantha Frank) and a recent ordinee of JTS (Rabbi Jessica Minnen) all contributed the Torah of their hearts, and the combined product, the stitching together of all of them with the help of the connecting thread of Quincy Ledbetter’s wonderful music, is a rich aural page of mishna. Listen for yourself, and let us know what you think!

 

Andy Kahn and Josh Mikutis are both rabbinical students (’18) at HUC-JIR in New York, and are both three-time recipients of the Be Wise Grant in Jewish Entrepreneurship. This coming year, Andy will be the organizing rabbinic intern at East End Temple, and Josh will be working at the 92nd Street Y.