The Torah: A Wom­en’s Commentary

Tama­ra Cohn Eske­nazi and Andrea L Weiss, eds.
  • Review
By – October 18, 2011

This is not just a Torah com­men­tary for women,” says Dr. Tama­ra Cohn Eske­nazi, Pro­fes­sor of Bible at Hebrew Union Col­lege in Los Ange­les, it is a Torah com­men­tary for every­one. And it is not Torah Lite.’” What is so remark­able about this vol­ume, says Eske­nazi, is that for the first time in his­to­ry there now exists a size­able col­lec­tion of excel­lent rab­bis, bib­li­cal schol­ars, poets, and aca­d­e­mics who are Jew­ish women and whose insights can be gath­ered in a writ­ten forum where they reflect, ana­lyze, and com­ment upon our sacred text. Only since the last third of the 20th cen­tu­ry,” write Eske­nazi and Weiss, have Jew­ish women become tru­ly vis­i­ble in both the aca­d­e­m­ic are­na of bib­li­cal schol­ar­ship and in specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish circles.” 

Accord­ing to the edi­tors, this Torah com­men­tary focus­es on three aspects of the text: that which relates to women, that which is obscure to con­tem­po­rary read­ers, and that which remains par­tic­u­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant for Jews today.” 

For so many rea­sons, this vol­ume is a remark­able rev­o­lu­tion in bib­li­cal schol­ar­ship and Jew­ish exe­ge­sis. It is inclu­sive, thor­ough, and provoca­tive. It is also a work of pro­found col­lab­o­ra­tion and cre­ativ­i­ty: it includes a new, gen­der-accu­rate” ver­sion of the NJPS trans­la­tion of the Torah by Rab­bi David Stein and the late Rab­bi Chaim Stern; it high­lights the schol­ar­ship and poet­ry of count­less Jew­ish women gleaned from mil­len­nia of Jew­ish writ­ings; it intro­duces poet­ry and per­son­al reflec­tions on the Torah into the genre of bib­li­cal criticism. 

In their intro­duc­tion Eske­nazi and Weiss explain that at times dif­fer­ent parts of the Com­men­tary treat sim­i­lar top­ics, or they approach the same top­ic from diver­gent stand­points— just as var­i­ous bib­li­cal vers­es inter­re­late. There­fore the com­men­tary fre­quent­ly includes cross-ref­er­ences that enable the read­er to engage more deeply in the study of the Torah.” Five dif­fer­ent modes of analy­sis and inter­pre­ta­tion address each Torah por­tion, uti­liz­ing ancient and con­tem­po­rary gen­res of bib­li­cal schol­ar­ship side by side. 

The Com­men­tary begins with brief essays reflect­ing on Women and the Inter­pre­ta­tion of the Torah,” Women in Ancient Israel – An Overview,” Women and Post-bib­li­cal Com­men­tary,” Women and the Con­tem­po­rary Rev­e­la­tion,” The Poet­ry of Torah and the Torah of Poet­ry,” each authored by a remark­able and respect­ed Jew­ish woman: Car­ol Myers, Judith R. Baskin, Ellen Uman­sky, and Sue-Levi Elwell. Their insights on each of these top­ics are ground-break­ing, refresh­ing, and steeped in the wis­dom of tradition. 

One of the foun­da­tion­al mes­sages inspir­ing this col­lab­o­ra­tion was, do not for­sake your mother’s Torah” (Proverbs 6:20). Eske­nazi and Weiss write, in this vol­ume, bib­li­cal schol­ars illus­trate what the Torah prob­a­bly meant in its own cul­tur­al milieu and lit­er­ary con­text. Then, schol­ars of rab­binic Judaism, Jew­ish thought, and oth­er aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­plines, along with cler­gy and oth­er Jew­ish pro­fes­sion­als, aug­ment the inter­pre­ta­tion of the bib­li­cal text to show how the Torah con­tin­ues to have new mean­ings for lat­er generations.” 

The women whose writ­ing is includ­ed in the vol­ume are a diverse, inter-dis­ci­pli­nary group, includ­ing: Rachel Adler, Deb­bie Fried­man, Ellen Frankel, Blu Green­berg, Judith Haupt­man, Regi­na Jonas, Noa Kush­n­er, Gol­da Meir, Car­ol Mey­ers, Judith Plaskow, Riv-Ellen Prell, Han­nah Senesh, Hen­ri­et­ta Szold, Dvo­ra Weis­berg, and Zel­da. They come from all streams of Jew­ish life, from var­i­ous peri­ods in Jew­ish his­to­ry, and pro­vide unique con­tri­bu­tions to the canon of bib­li­cal studies. 

God con­tin­ues to speak to each gen­er­a­tion; in this one, we hear women’s voic­es,” writes Ellen Uman­sky, cit­ing a midrash on Exo­dus that relates that women, too, heard the divine voice at Sinai, each accord­ing to their strength” (Shmot Rab­bah 5:9). The Torah: A Women’s Com­men­tary is a pro­found and impor­tant record of women’s reflec­tions on rev­e­la­tion. Every Shab­bat, Jews through­out the world recite the words, she [the Torah] is a tree of life”. This Com­men­tary goes one step fur­ther, illus­trat­ing that the Torah, indeed, is a liv­ing, vibrant, and con­tem­po­rary source of life to all who hold onto it.”

Julie Pelc Adler is a rab­bi and a co-edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Join­ing the Sis­ter­hood: Young Jew­ish Women Write Their Lives (State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York Press, 2003). She is the assis­tant direc­tor of the Kals­man Insti­tute on Judaism and Health at HUC in Los Ange­les and also teach­es under­grad­u­ate cours­es in the Lit­er­a­ture and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Depart­ment at the Amer­i­can Jew­ish University.

Discussion Questions