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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
Social Justice

A Tree of Hope for the Future

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of traveling to Little Rock, AR for the dedication of an installation containing a sapling from Anne Frank’s tree at the Clinton Presidential Center. The project was a partnership of the local Congregation B’nai Israel Sisterhood and the Clinton Center. When the sisterhood president heard about The Sapling Project, she was inspired to begin the five year journey that would lead to that moment.

Anne Frank lovingly wrote about ‘her’ tree throughout her famous diary and for decades it remained outside the secret annex that has become a memorial and museum perpetuating Anne’s hopeful message to the world. Several years ago, knowing the tree would soon die, the Anne Frank Center devised a plan to cultivate several saplings, which are now planted around the world and serve as a focus for education and inspiration. The selection criteria for obtaining one of the 11 saplings destined for the U.S. required the host community to assure it would be used to educate the community about its own history.

This particular tree will serve as a reminder of past acts of discrimination and persecution that took place in Arkansas. Its roots will be nourished by the tears of Native Americans as they were forced to leave their ancestral lands for parts unknown. The soil in which it will be planted was aerated by the barbed wire of Japanese relocation centers during World War II. And the dirt around the young sapling will be packed down by the tread of Jim Crow. Strengthened by the lessons of the past, the sprouts that will flourish from the sapling will inspire a new generation to recognize—and defeat—injustice.

Contrary to earlier reports, I was not able to actually speak at the event, though I did enjoy a ‘meet and greet’ with the 42nd President of the United States. I suppose being ‘bumped’ by a president is not so bad. Fortunately, there was one speaker allowed to participate from the local congregation. The chosen speaker was not the rabbi, or the sisterhood president, or the funders, or the visionary leaders who made the project come to fruition. Instead, the speaker was Lexi Elenzweig, the youth group president, who, like Anne, is a teenager finding her place in the world and raising her pen and her voice to speak truth to power. She said:

I am 17 years old. I am just a little older than Anne Frank was when she died. The tree inspired Anne to write about her hopes and dreams for the future. Anne’s words, written in her diary, have inspired millions of people around the world, including me. I hope one day our “little” tree will began to grow and flourish, and resemble the tree that provided comfort and hope to Anne.

The roots of this sapling are grounded in history. As the roots take hold and provide a solid foundation for its growth, this tree will also become part of this place, anchoring itself into the future of this region.

The branches are reaching towards the future. As the branches grow higher, they will provide inspiration for us to always reach towards the good and light in this world. Like the tree, I hope together we continue to grow towards the light and into the future.

The director of the Anne Frank House and President Clinton both spoke brilliantly during the dedication. But it will be the dreams of youth that will keep this tree alive: forever-15 year old Anne, the courageous Little Rock Nine, young George Takei at the age of five interred just a few miles away, and inspiring Lexi Elenzweig.

And if all of that was not enough, the best moment for me was Lexi’s opening line: “As a leader of our youth group and a future member of a sisterhood, I am inspired by the legacy of the women of sisterhood and the ongoing work they do today to repair, heal, and transform the world.”

It doesn’t get any better than that!

Rabbi Marla J. Feldman is the WRJ Executive Director.  This blog was originally posted here.