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My Love Affair With The Torah: A Women’s Commentary

My Love Affair With The Torah: A Women’s Commentary

It began as many new relationships do: I was curious but tentative. How would this new entity fit into my life? Did I really need it? Could I make room for it in my over-stuffed brain and on my increasingly crowded bookshelves?

I received The Torah: A Women’s Commentary as a gift during my fourth year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). My professor, Dr. Andrea Weiss, was one of its editors. Dr. Weiss was thrilled to share this project – into which so much love, care, and scholarship had been poured – with me and my fellow classmates. Although I accepted the gift with gratitude, I wondered how much I would actually use yet another Torah commentary. And what about this commentary’s emphasis on women? I had read – and felt uncomfortable with – ways of approaching the Bible that sought to project the author’s agenda onto the sacred text.

The goal of the Commentary, I learned from its introductory pages, was to share “the variety of Torah interpretations, past and present” that would help its users enter the cross-generational conversation that is Torah study. Its editors wanted to create a commentary that “would help women reclaim Torah by gathering together the scholarship and insights of women across the Jewish spectrum and around the world.” The Board of Directors of Women of Reform Judaism, which sponsored the project, wanted the commentary to “provide a way into Torah study for women who had previously felt excluded or marginalized.” The Commentary encompassed recent discoveries about the richness and complexity of life in the Ancient Near East. Its authors and contributors included scholars such as Dr. Ellen Umansky, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, Dr. Carol Meyers, Dr. Judith Hauptman, Dr. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, and Blu Greenberg. This was my kind of agenda!

I began to use The Torah: A Women’s Commentary in my studies at HUC-JIR, at my student pulpit, and in my work after ordination. The way in which the commentary combines traditional rabbinic sources and contemporary scholarship dovetails with my own approach to Torah study. Each parashah (weekly Torah portion) begins with an introduction and outline, which provides an overview of the Torah portion and its themes. The central commentary, a running exegesis, is patterned after the way commentary is presented in Mikraot G’dolot (The Great Scriptures, which is a compilation of texts and commentaries on the Bible). Short essays by contemporary biblical scholars elaborate on or challenge the central commentary’s point of view. Each parashah includes teachings from rabbinic literature and other commentaries, presented by a scholar of rabbinic literature – sources that I could explore in greater detail on my own if I desired. I liked each parashah’s contemporary reflection, an essay by a current Jewish scholar, about what meaning the text has for us today. I was often moved by the voices section, which offers creative interpretations – mostly poetry – of the parashah’s themes.

My relationship with The Torah: A Women’s Commentary entered a new phase when I became the writer for its study guides. Conceived as part of the original project, the study guides are designed to be used in conjunction with the Commentary. Writing the study guides allowed me to immerse myself in all aspects of the Commentary. As I prepared each guide, I focused on the overarching themes in each parashah, and sought to understand – with the help of the central commentary – the p’shat (the literal meaning) of the text. I thought about the questions I had about the text, and about how I could help those studying the Torah portion to answer these and other questions, using the resources in the Commentary. With the guidance of Dr. Weiss and Dr. Lisa Grant, editors of the study guide project and master teachers of Torah, I learned to ask questions that would help students delve more deeply into the text. I wrote questions arising from other sections of the Commentary that I hoped would lead to a greater understanding of the biblical text and to how our rabbinic ancestors, contemporary scholars, and poets saw each parashah. I asked questions that I hoped would allow students using the study guide to think about relationships between the biblical text and their own lives.

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is the commentary to which I turn first – for my own study, when I am preparing a d’var Torah, or when I am getting ready to teach. It is the Torah commentary that I recommend most frequently to students.

I often use poems from the voices section in my sermons. Although it is difficult to choose a favorite, this poem by Barbara D. Holender expresses eloquently the joys of immersing ourselves – aided by this wonderful Commentary – in the sacred song that is Torah:

Torah

Even when you hold it in your arms,
you have not grasped it.
Wrapped and turned it upon itself
the scroll says, Not yet.

Even when you take them into your eyes,
you have not seen them: elegant
in their crowns the letters stand aloof.

Even when you taste them in your mouth
and roll them on the tongue
or bite the sharp unyielding strokes
they say, Not yet.

And when the sounds pour from your throat
and reach deep into your lungs for breath,
even the words say, Not quite.

But when your heart knows its own hunger
and your mind is seized and shaken,
and in the narrow space between the lines
your soul builds its nest,

Now, says Torah, now
you begin to understand.

Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein serves Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, VA and teaches Introduction to Judaism courses for the Union for Reform Judaism in the Washington, D.C. area. She wrote some of the study guides for The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.

Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein
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