Transforming Sacred Texts

Torah of the Mothers: Contemporary Jewish Women Read Classical Jewish Texts
edited by Ora Wiskind Elper and Susan Handelman, Urim Publications, $29.95

Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women In the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament
edited by Carol Meyers,. Toni Craven and Ross S. Kraemer, Hougfiton Mifflin, $40.00

Torah of the Mothers: Contemporary Jewish Women Read Classical Jewish Texts is a compilation of 23 essays, most written by Orthodox female teachers living in Jerusalem, who wear both their text scholarship and open-mindedness with a rare, disarming humilily. The authors arc grounded in their religious community, and, by extension, in their community’s texts and seriousness of moral purpose.

The methodology underlying these essays is the quiet and rhythmic patience of logic. These women’s self-fabric is emotionally integrated with fabric of their “group-self,” and they consequently write as Earths revolving around a Sun.

One cluster of essays in Torah of the Mothers is about teachers whom (he authors have learned with, the student/teacher relationship being something that these women prize. Joy Rochwarger describes Nechama Leibowitz. a brilliant and adored teacher, buying her a Lotto card during one of their weekly Friday morning walks in Jerusalem, and her private, text-informed process, when Leifxiwitz dies, of weighing whether or not she is entitled to tear keriyah [to rip her clothes] as a sign of mourning. “Although my grief was overwhelming,” Rochwarger writes. “I was not an immediate relative.” The equanimity of this kind of statement, rising like a mist off a distant mountain, is the prevalent tone here…and it is quite different, of course, from what those of us more steeped in the secular world are accustomed to.

And in yet another fine essay Gilla Ratzersdorfer Rosen discusses the lifelong reverberations that were set in motion for her at age 15, when her parents allowed her to accompany them to one of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s famed public lectures in memory of his wife. Soloveilchik disscusscd the Talmudic text Kiddushin 3()b that evening, writes Rosen, and his “distinctions became crucial [to] my ability to internalize his ideas and to use them creatively in my own relationship to God.”

“I did not sit for years in the Rav’s shiur (his daily Talmud class),” she explains, ”nor hear him teach the weekly Torah portion every Saturday night, nor care for him in his old age. I do not claim to have ‘known the Rav’. I know only that he taught me things when I needed to learn them, that he bridged for me the intellectual and the emotional, the world of words and the world of being.”

Finally, in a third essay about a teacher, Yardena Cope-Yossef reprints letters that she received, over the years, from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. In one (that she received when she was 16) Kaplan writes. “I would like to thank you for helping me find a theme for my devar Torah after Minchah on Shahbos.” Years later, Cope-Yossef writes, she realized that the reciprocity Kaplan exhibited towards his students was one of “the features that characterized his greatness.” She connects this idea with a beautiful passage from Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav that explains the importance, for a student, of physically looking into a teacher’s face, even if one must travel a long way to do so.

The editors, Elper and Handelman, choose to undergird their understanding of what Torah of the Mothers is through something shared by Rochwarger’s Rav:

I learned from my mother that Judaism expresses itself…in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life—to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His [sic] hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence. I would have grown up a soul-less being, dry and insensitive.”

The book also includes essays entitled “Exodus and the Feminine.” “The Voice in the Shofar: A Defense of Deborah.” and “Physical Infertility and Spiritual fecundity,” among others.

Next, a truly groundbreaking volume in the study of Bible, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, comprised of over 800 scholarly entries (almost all written by female academics), cumulatively gives every single woman in the Bible—named and unnamed—her long-awaited due.

Of three sections in this dictionary, the first is devoted to “named women”—Abigail, Jezebel, seven different Marys, Keren-happuch, etcetera. It is a section that is, of course, relatively short. But the “unnamed women” section is humungous, and highly entertaining. We have entries for, say, “Woman Who Mutilates a Man’s Genitals” [Deut. 25:11-12], “Daughters as Perfumers, Cooks, and Bakers” [1 Samuel 8:13], “Prostitutes Washing in Ahab’s Blood [1 Kings 22:38],” and “Two Mothers Who Agree to Eat Their Sons [2 Kings 6:26-33].” There are also: “Widow Whose Oil is Multiplied,” “Wives of Huppim and Shuppim,” and “Women of Rehoboam (Eighteen Wives, Sixty Concubines, and Sixty Daughters.)”

Did we mention “Girl,” “Woman Who Is a Trap,” “Women Who Grind,” and “Women Looking Through Windows?” Or “God as a Woman in Labor,” “Raped Women and Virgins,” “Girl Who Loves Ornaments,” “Woman Bent Over for Eighteen Years,” and “Woman with a Twelve-Year Hemorrhage?” How about “Trembling Women?” The list is astonishing.

The final third of Women in Scripture covers female deities and personifications (like Princess Jerusalem, Great Whore, Mistress Babylon, Lilith, Woman Wisdom), and is also thrilling.

It makes a Jewish woman tingle to see how we—book by book, year by year, decade by decade—continue, devotedly and impressively, to come of intellectual, spiritual and emotional age.