Book Discussion: Houses of Study - A Jewish Woman Among Books
One of my favorite activities to bring to a classroom of elementary school-aged religious school students is a deceptively simple art project: "Draw a Jew." Easy, no? In fact, I encourage you to do so, even just in your own mind, as you read these words. What does a Jew look like to you? Even more interesting, what would you imagine if I said, "Draw a rabbi?" I am infinitely intrigued by how many of my students draw, a) a man; b) an Orthodox man; and/or c) an Ultra-Orthodox, black-hat covered, payes-wearing man.
After they share their drawings, I ask them a short, important question: "Where are you in these pictures?" Silently, they look down at the drawings, slightly baffled, as a new understanding spreads over the group - they, too, are Jews. And they, too, would have been just as valid in someone's drawing of a Jew. The drawing could have been of a CHILD! A modern, baseball cap-covered, jeans-wearning child. Even more eye-opening - that drawing could have been of a woman!! Holy moly!!
Ilana Blumberg, in her moving memoir, Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman Among Books, traces her own evolving relationship with her tradition. Raised in an observant Conservative Jewish home in the Chicago area, Blumberg attended an Orthodox High School. Her learning is filled with images of Biblical characters, especially the women, a love for Hebrew (her grandfather, Harry, published one of the most well-known texts for Hebrew studies, Modern Hebrew, and a passion for the land of Israel. Yet she is keenly aware that there is much that she is not allowed to learn, nor will she be encouraged to learn, in the Orthodox setting. She recognizes that, in that world, she can only achieve Binah (understanding), viewed as inferior to Chochmah (wisdom).
One particular passage has continued to turn and turn within me:
"And perhaps most poignant of all, the sentence I learned so early from the Midrash: God looked in the Torah, then created the world. According to this Midrash, even God Himself, the author of the Torah, bowed to the independent authority of the text He had written, let the book itself guide Him in creation. God read, then created. The book, once written, says this Midrash to me, is never entirely one with its author; only in thought can the thinker and the thought be one.
Yet despite the room in my tradition for such complicated notions of intention and authorship, it was not my interpretations of the Bible - or the interpretations of anyone of my sex, no matter how learned - that those Midrashim were honoring and protecting. It was the interpretive power of the rabbis - a power that slid immediately into legislative power - to which the Talmud referred when it said that God laughed in pleasure. And the wives of those rabbis had given birth to sons who had given birth to sons who had not expanded the notion of "sage" to include women. It was men who ruled over interpretation and its translation into the material conditions against which I was struggling." (pp 106-107)
Ilana Blumberg helps us remember the essential importance of expanding our image of what a "sage" is, and, much more importantly, what a JEW is. We are blessed with so many wise, insightful, and brilliant women Torah scholars in our world today. Just the addition of groundbreaking work, The Torah: A Women's Commentary published by the URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, and edited by our incredible teachers, Tamara Cohn Eskanazi and Andrea Weiss, has changed the way that congregations are studying Torah.
I had the privilege of spending a year using The Torah: A Women's Commentary for weekly Torah study at my previous congregation. The Shabbat Torah study group elected a different text through which they would study Torah each year, and prior selections had included Rashi, Midrash, Haftarah, and Ramban. Last year, however, with the publication of the new women's commentary, the group was excited to spend the year introducing a new layer to its understanding of Torah.
I am sure that Ms. Blumberg would have truly enjoyed joining us for the year of study. Adding women's voices - through Biblical scholarship, essays, poetry, criticism, and interpretation - enhanced our study in innumerable ways. If asked to "Draw a Torah sage," we would have produced wonderful, diverse, and inclusive depictions. These drawings might have included young and old, men and women, secular and observant. For the first time, most profoundly, we might finally have discovered that these drawings would have reflected us.