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Men’s Torah Commentary ‘Steals the Spotlight’

It hasn’t been long — just the last dozen years in human time, but a blink of an eye in the long arc of Torah interpretation — that women have published scholarly commentaries on the Jewish Bible.

Now there’s a new book in response, “The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary”, edited by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin and published by Jewish Lights.

Rabbi Salkin has put together a book of Torah interpretations, one weekly Torah portion at a time, by rabbis from Modern Orthodox to Reform and Reconstructionist, but also by singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman and PresenTense’s founder Ariel Beery.

The Atlanta-based Rabbi Salkin gives a nod toward Jewish feminist scholarship, and writes in the introduction that feminism has pointed out that we see the world through a gendered lens. He also writes, “The great, often unspoken crisis facing modern liberal Judaism is the disengagement of its men.”

There is, to be sure, a serious problem of disengagement among young men in liberal synagogues, but Rabbi Salkin overstates it. Thoughtful analysts are more likely to say that the great crisis facing modern liberal Judaism is overall illiteracy and indifference.

The very idea of a book of men’s Torah commentary rankles some leading Jewish feminists.

“Obviously every Torah commentary until the present day has been a men’s Torah commentary,” says Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, who developed and edited the book on which Rabbi Salkin’s is modeled, “The Women’s Torah Commentary.”

It was published in 2000. Since both books share a publisher, Goldstein declined to speak specifically about the new book, but did address larger issues.

“Until women’s commentaries were being written, nobody noticed that they were all from men’s perspectives. My whole Jewish education was spent reading and hearing men’s commentaries,” says Goldstein, who is on sabbatical from her current role as director of Kolel, a center for adult Jewish learning in Toronto. “It’s an interesting reaction. I find it slightly amusing that nobody understands that Rashi’s is a men’s commentary.”

Feminist path-breaker Letty Cottin Pogrebin put a finer point on it. “That this new book is being published with such a title is not just a transparent marketing ploy but, unfortunately, conforms to previous responses to women’s advancement or visibility in other fields,” said Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine:

I call this response ‘The Stolen Spotlight Syndrome’ and it works like this: As soon as massive public attention is directed to women’s problems, efforts, opinions, condition, status, or suffering, men yank the spotlight back to themselves with a kind of ‘us too!’ response.

It happened when feminists managed to raise public consciousness about the struggles of single mothers. What was the first major cultural expression of this issue? ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ — the story of a single father’s struggles! Likewise, when feminists succeeded in surfacing the issue of sexual harassment, the first major cultural expression of that problem was David Mamet’s play “Oleanna,” the story of a male professor being harassed by a female student.

Now that we finally have women’s voices weighing in on Torah with powerful, fresh interpretations, men are yanking the spotlight back in this modern guise of tit-for-tat — a men’s commentary. To me, it’s a cynical effort to neutralize the emergence of women as rightful interpreters of text.

The idea of breaking out scholarship from a male point of view in an overtly gendered way is so new that even Google hasn’t caught up. When you Google the new book, the search engine asks “Did you mean “The Modern Women’s Torah Commentary?”

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