As Long As It’s Choice


One Orthodox young woman’s view on the Women’s Commentary—and whether it should be celebrated.

by Rachel Kohl Finegold

After the explosion of women’s Torah study in recent decades, the Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) Torah commentary seems the next logical step. It brings us the insights of 80 women on our most sacred text, and does so in an unprecedented and creative way. The commentary considers the subtext of the plot lines, the stories within the stories. It is sensitive to the inner world of biblical characters, specifically revealing the internal lives of the matriarchs, often overlooked by classical commentaries. And, most admirable of all, it does all this while remaining honest to the text. The observations are intuitive, not forced; they seem to flow from the language of the verses. All this, coupled with modern interpretations and poetic renderings, make the commentary a unique project.

This is a monumental work, one that is sure to be studied by women and men for years to come. It makes a powerful statement about women in Bible scholarship, but to me, it is not the ultimate step. To see these women published in a women-only volume emphasizes their gender, perhaps above their biblical scholarship. It tells me that, while we have created a space for women where they were previously excluded, it is still unusual or remarkable that there are females engaged at this level of study. My hope is that this project will usher in a truly postfeminist era, where there is a sense of normalcy around female Torah scholarship, and where a work of this size and magnitude would showcase women and men side by side.

My personal take on this

My perspective is, perhaps, different from the editors and compilers of this impressive volume. Women scholars have been successfully integrated into the academic world and into the liberal streams of Judaism. This is, after all, a project of the Women of Reform Judaism, a community where women attend rabbinical schools and are active on all levels of public religious life. Perhaps for them, creating this volume is a way of celebrating what already exists in that community— the mainstreaming of women scholars who closely study biblical text.

In the Orthodox world (my own community), however, there have been only a handful of women who, in recent decades, have accomplished this level of acceptance in biblical studies; Nehama Lebowitz and Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg are two. They are studied and cited by women and men around the world, not because they are women, nor despite that fact, but because they have made significant contributions to parshanut (Torah study). We study the medieval commentators like Rambam and Ibn Ezra, not because they were men, but because they were geniuses. The Orthodox world of female Torah commentary may have hopes of reaching this sense of normalcy, but it is still a long way off. This is why for me, a women’s commentary is a step in the right direction, but is not the ultimate end. In my mind, the goal is for women to be recognized, not because they are women, but simply because they are scholars.

Making inclusion the norm, not the exception

It is worth noting that, although historically most Torah commentators have been men, the tradition certainly supports the idea of women scholars. Even as far back as Bruria or Yalta in the Talmud, there were individual women whose voices were heard and their Torah interpretations respected. Almost 2,000 years ago, when most women were illiterate both religiously and secularly, these women’s opinions were so respected as to be quoted in our canonical Rabbinic works. How much more so today, when women earn PhD’s and serve in the highest ranks of government, must women’s voices be heard in the beit midrash (study halls) and on the printed pages of Torah commentary. If those women were the exception, our women can be the norm.

I do not mean to deride the value of women-only religious enterprises. I have personally benefited from the sense of closeness and belonging that comes from studying Torah in women-only settings. At Drisha Institute in New York City, at MaTaN and Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, and even as a student in my all-girls yeshiva high school on Long Island, I felt the powerful bond of the female Torah community. Reading the WRJ commentary brought me the same sense of satisfaction. There is power to women-only endeavors, but only when they stem from desire, and not out of necessity due to exclusion. Postfeminism is about giving women options. The option to be a stay-at-home mother rather than work outside the home is available and respected. Choosing to compile a women’s Bible commentary is exciting and powerful, as long as it is a choice.

This commentary is the product of 80 insightful, knowledgeable individuals… who happen to be women. The project’s strength lies in the sheer number and variety of scholars’ voices, not their gender. Presenting poets and archaeologists alongside rabbis and cantors is its greatness. I hope to share it with my students and teachers, both male and female, for years to come.

What do you think? Post your comment.

About the Author

Rachel Kohl Finegold
Rachel Kohl Finegold received her BA in religion from Boston University and is a graduate of the Scholars Circle at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. Rachel is the programming and ritual director at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago, Illinois.

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