- The Torah: A Women's Commentary
The Torah: A Women's Commentary (TWC)1 is a user-friendly book that is equally accessible to layperson and scholar. It is a work that was many years in the making; the Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) began thinking about the project in 1995, committing itself then to funding the commentary. Even before the reader gets to the Foreword, s/he is treated to the sight of what is a unique collaboration of feminist minds. The editorial board reads like a veritable "who's who" of women scholars, mostly identified with the Reform Movement. Though the translations relied upon are mostly done by men, two women are consulting editors for four of the five books. The dedication pages, which include donors, are tastefully done in the names of the four matriarchs, and some of the parashot (weekly portions) have their contributors mentioned as well, mostly in recognition of "women on whose shoulders we stand" (ix). The TWC goes out of its way to attribute in its table of contents—so you know exactly who is responsible for the overall work as well as each of its parts. Thus the books of Genesis, Leviticus, and Numbers are edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, and Exodus and Deuteronomy by Andrea L. Weiss.
This is the big picture—but the real picture is that for each of the 54 parashot, there is an overall commentator responsible for the central commentary which contains the Hebrew text and an updated, gender-neutral translation with a verse by verse explanation of the biblical text when relevant to female characters or women's issues. This is followed by four sections written or edited by a different woman scholar/writer/rabbi. The first is a short section "Another View," which focuses on and often challenges one element in the portion. The "Post-Biblical Interpretations" includes rabbinic, classic Jewish commentaries and highlights the traditional sources relevant to women. The third section "Contemporary Reflection" has a more philosophical bent encouraging the reader to reflect on how the Torah speaks to us now as Jewish women. The last section entitled "Voices" is primarily inspirational poetry which responds to the portion almost as stream of consciousness.
Giving each contributor her due—although not mentioned as part of the philosophy of this commentary—is important, given the fact that women's voices have been silenced, used, and stolen, starting perhaps with the attribution of Miriam's song to Moses, continuing with the lack of credit given to managing editor of Jewish Publication Society, Henrietta Szold by Louis Ginsburg in his compilation of Legends of the Jews (1920's), and the mostly unattributed use of Rosalind Franklin's research on the structure of DNA by Nobel Prize winners Watson and Crick (1962) (she is belatedly receiving credit).
As Sarah Sager points out in the Preface, it is doubtful that this work could have been started earlier than the last decade of the 20th century. The explosion of women poking into the "patriarchal gloss of the text…prodding [the] communal memory and inventing what we have forgotten" [xxviii] only began in the late '70s. In the Introduction, Eskenazi and Weiss explain "Three words reflect our guiding principles: contemporary, Jewish and women." By contemporary they mean that [End Page 140] there will be new insights, scholarly approaches and 21st century concerns included. By Jewish they acknowledge the sacredness of the Torah, yet point out that Jewish approaches have always included interpretation and flexibility in adapting to new contexts. They are quite careful to continue the tradition of 54 portions (parashot) with the entire Torah accompanied by a translation and by running commentaries although there is no division by aliyot to the Torah). One major change is that haftarot2 are not included in this book, which I will discuss later in this review.
Another major change from previously published commentaries is that the sages here are all women. A decision was made not to invite male voices as "mere tokens" since it would also detract from giving women a...