Torah of the Mothers
Contemporary Jewish Women Read Classical Jewish Texts
Edited by Ora Wiskind Elper and Susan Handelman
Urim Publications, 2006, 510 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - January 22, 2010
Since we would like to believe that Judaism and the Torah are for men and women, and since women have their own perspective on subjects, this volume is an important contribution to Judaism.
The volume contains twenty-three chapters by twenty-three female Orthodox contributors, all college graduates and most with post graduate degrees. The book is divided into four parts. The first five chapters discuss significant Jewish teachers, such as Rabbi Soloveitchik and Nechama Leibowitz. The next seven chapters analyze biblical texts, including what the story of the daughters of Tzlafchad says about women's issues. Four chapters on readings of rabbinic texts follow, such as an evaluation of three parables about a king and his daughter. The final section of seven chapters addresses "exile and redemption," such as "Exodus and the Feminine in the Teachings of Rabbi Yaakov of Izbica."
An example is the story of Tzlafchad‘s daughters in Numbers 27:1-9. The daughters petitioned Moses for a change in the then-existing practices to allow them to inherit land. The author uses the story to show how modern women can petition rabbis for changes in Judaism. Eight logical steps are described. The first two are that women should: (1) identify the underlying spiritual principle that is being violated and (2) bring up the issue at the right time. This author suggests that rabbis should follow Moses' example and listen with an open mind.
Another example is a detailed analysis of a midrashic tale about Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, a very poor man. Unable to afford a sacrifice, he travels to a desert and carves and paints a stone to offer to the Temple. He cannot carry the stone to Jerusalem and angels help him. The author identifies dozens of narrative elements in the tale and suggests how they can be understood. She also clarifies the historical context that prompted the story and its message.
A third example examines the strange encounter of the patriarch Jacob with Pharaoh in Genesis 47:7-10. We would have expected a meeting of substance, but all that occurs is that Pharaoh asks Jacob his age, he replies 130 and complains that life has been hard, and then Jacob blesses Pharaoh and leaves. The author discusses the explanations of the episode offered by the classical interpreters, and gives her own solution.
A fourth example is an analysis of the five instances in the beginning of Exodus where the newly freed Israelites whine, moan and groan against God and Moses. The author shows that each complaint is a rhetorical question, such as "Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?" There is no real request for an answer or for help, as if the former slaves were unaccustomed to ask overseers for help. The author examines the hidden agendas and the psychology underlying the five questions.
The book in short is a refreshing look at Judaism from a new eye-opening perspective.