View from Inside

rabbiharaperson

Meet the brave—and no doubt exhausted—managing editor who helped put together this mammoth project.

by Michelle Cove

Below is an interview with Rabbi Hara Person, the Managing Editor of
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.

Where did the original idea for The Torah: A Women’s Commentary come from?

It came from a speech that Cantor Sarah Sager made called “Sarah’s Hidden Voice: Recovering and Discovering Women’s Spirituality” at a Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) assembly in 1993. In her speech she challenged WRJ to commission a women’s Torah commentary that would “incorporate women’s history and women’s experience as part of the living memory of the Jewish people.”

Little did you know that this challenge would take more than a decade to meet, right? Why did the process take so long?

It is a huge and ambitious project. Though Cantor Sager’s idea was extremely well received and WRJ immediately began to talk about how to do it, a huge amount of organization and fundraising was involved. It was truly a learning experience for everyone involved. There were pilot versions, study sessions, and evaluations of study sessions. First, WRJ had to make a formal decision to commit to a project of this scope. Then, an editorial board had to be formed. It took some time for the editorial board to figure out what the book should consist of, what the guiding principles should be, and what the goals of the book should be. All of that was done before there was a significant amount of money raised and before there was a publisher.

What was the most challenging part of the entire process?

The amount of organization involved. There are more than 80 commentary contributors and roughly the same number of writers for the Voices section, the section that incorporates poetry and other creative interpretations of the text. There is also the editorial board, the Voices editorial board, and the various editors. So many people are involved, and figuring out how to get all the material to everyone who needed to see it, how to best incorporate everyone’s feedback, how to keep track of all the various versions, and how to stay on top of all the material going back and forth has been a huge challenge. This never could have been done without email and the Internet.

What are you most proud of when you look at the commentary?

Honestly, the whole thing. It’s such an amazing project. It is stimulating, challenging, and moving. It both teaches from a place of scholarly integrity and is emotionally inspirational. There are fascinating insights in the book that really make significant contributions to biblical scholarship, along with poetry that goes right to the gut. The book also is visually beautiful.

What was your goal in creating it?

We wanted to fill a gap in Torah commentary offerings in terms of what was already available. It is meant to be a) contemporary, b) Jewish, and c) focused on women (not necessarily in that order). The idea was to provide a commentary that would focus on women’s concerns and women’s voices by incorporating a multiplicity of approaches, including literary criticism, feminist scholarship, sociological perspectives, new advances in anthropology, and so on. Specifically, we wanted to highlight the work of Jewish women scholars around the world, to focus on issues of importance to contemporary Jewish women, and to provide a creative connection to the text through poetry.

You include mention of menstruation, sex, and other topics that are not typically discussed in the Torah. Did you set out to be somewhat controversial?

First of all, it’s not that those topics are not typically discussed. They’re in the Torah, so they are discussed to some extent in any commentary. The Torah contains laws about menstruating women, about childbirth, about sexual relationships. The difference here is that they’re discussed in detail, without a sense of embarrassment or taboo. The goal is not to be controversial, but to be educational and also affirming of real women’s real life experiences. This is the stuff of our lives.

Have you received any negative feedback about the commentary? If so, what?

Of course. There are some people who think that focusing just on the women is pointless or even too passé in 2007. There are some people who are offended that all the writers are women. But these kinds of comments are by people who haven’t actually engaged with the book itself, only the idea.

Is this something that you would do again? Why or why not?

First, I need to have a break, as this has become what I do with all my free time in addition to what I do at work! But yes, no question that I’d do it again. It’s been so exciting, so challenging intellectually, personally, and spiritually. And it’s been a rare privilege to get to work with such a group of smart, interesting women. Plus, I can’t forget the one man in the mix, our project manager. It has been a true example of team work on so many levels.

What do you think might be the biggest surprise to readers?

How serious it is. I think some people may expect what I referred to before as something that is simply “feel-good.” This isn’t just something to make women feel happy and included. This is serious material that really grapples with the text, wrestles with it in some cases, challenges it and challenges the reader. It has the potential to really be transformative, to enable us to study Torah in a new and different way that will change our relationship to the text and to Judaism.

What do you think? Post your comment.

About the Author

Michelle CoveMichelle Cove, Editor-in-Chief of 614: The HBI eZine
Michelle Cove coauthored the national bestseller I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You!: A new understanding of mother-daughter conflict, published by Viking. Michelle has written articles for numerous publications including Family Fun, Psychology Today, Success, and Body & Soul.

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