This has been the year of women claiming agency.
We began 2017 marching for our rights in Washington, D.C., and we end the year shifting the national dialogue on sexual harassment and assault. We’ve made it clearer than ever before that our voices must be heard, while asserting our right to hold positions once belonging only to men.
This year also marks an important anniversary of progress in women’s Torah scholarship. Ten years ago, a groundbreaking new volume challenged the historic notion that Torah scholarship was a male-only endeavor. With the release of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, which was co-published by CCAR Press and Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), women took a seat at the table and added new, long-silenced voices to the age-old Jewish tradition of text study. This tremendous accomplishment was recognized by the larger community as the book received the National Jewish Book Award in 2008.
While the first ordination of a woman by formal rabbinic seminary was in 1972, it was not until ten years ago that we finally saw a, comprehensive, community-wide effort to include or showcase women’s Torah scholarship. It took another generation for a critical mass of women to gain authority in the fields of Bible and rabbinics, paving the way for the publication of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.
This historic volume brought women’s voices and perspectives to our foundational Jewish narratives, gleaned from both scholarship and their lived experiences. Among these voices are ways to examine women’s roles in ancient society as well as problematic gender issues in the Torah. Familiar tales are re-framed, new understandings surface, and mis-reading are challenged. The women in the text gain agency, becoming not simply secondary characters, but primary actors in their own right.
The power of our sacred texts is that they aren’t merely history and theology and literature and philology. They are also living texts – texts that continue to speak to us generation after generation, texts in which we encounter and wrestle with our God and ourselves again and again. When half of the community is closed out of that encounter, not only do we suffer, but our texts suffer as well. Our texts need all of us – the voices and perspectives of the whole community – or they are not whole themselves. And because Torah continues to speak so forcefully to our lives, women’s readings of the text also provide ways to look at the problematic gender issues we still live with today within the Jewish community, and within our larger society.
Looking back over the last ten years since The Torah: A Women’s Commentary was first published, it is clear that as with the ordination of women, this book changed history. But the task is not yet complete. The perspectives it revealed are even more urgently in broader society today. We are at a turning point as we go through a reckoning of the systemic ways that women have been mistreated. Brave women are standing up and speaking out.
The publication of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary was historic because when women become scholars and commentators of Torah, we take our rightful place in the sacred dialogue of text study, fulfilling the age-old Jewish responsibility of creating ongoing Jewish engagement and meaning. When women create a Torah commentary, we declare that the lives and experiences of the women of the Torah matter, and thus that the lives and concerns of contemporary women matter, too. This commentary stakes a claim for women in the narrative of our tradition and the sacred endeavors of our community, and in so doing, women are empowered to share their voices both within the Jewish community and in greater society.
The study of Torah by women, and the writing of Torah commentary by women, is not meant to compete, but rather to complete the richness of the Torah study that has come before.
In order to truly be a holy community before God, we must listen to the whole raucous spectrum of voices, not limit our own possibilities for holiness based solely on gender identification. In the ten years since The Torah: A Women’s Commentary was first published, the need for Torah commentary that gives voice to women’s experiences and recognizes women’s contribution to the field has become even more urgent rather than less.
Inspired by the cacophony of diverse voices and led by the publication of this important book, we are able to inch ever closer towards wholeness, and thus to holiness.
Rabbi Hara Person is the Publisher of CCAR Press and CCAR’s Chief Strategy Officer.
Why Women’s Torah Commentary Matters Today More Than Ever Before
Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Executive for the Central Conference of American Rabbis.