Editors: Ora Wiskind Elper and Susan Handelman
Sarah Malka Eisen
Ilana Goldstein Saks
Tamara Goshen Gottstein
Ora Wiskind Elper
Ours is an era of profound spiritual searching, in which the role of the Jewish woman is being reexamined. Torah of the Mothers is a landmark collection of essays and teachings culled from years of Bible and Jewish study by highly accomplished women Torah scholars and educators.
Each contributor brings her own area of expertise to bear, providing novel and refreshing insights into biblical and rabbinic texts. Each also offers thought-provoking commentary on the ever present themes of exile and redemption, which are intrinsic to the ongoing saga of the Jewish people.
In Torah of the Mothers, contemporary women also reflect upon teachers who have personally influenced and inspired them. Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Nechama Leibowitz, of blessed memories, are among the mentors who played, and continue to play, a meaningful role in their lives.
Torah of the Mothers combines erudition with deep concern for the daily aspects of our spiritual lives.
Dr. Ora Wiskind Elper
teaches Jewish thought at Michlalah College, MaTaN Institute for Women's Torah Studies, and Touro College, Jerusalem. She is the author of Tradition and Fantasy in the Tales of Reb Nahman of Bratslav. She has also translated works from Hebrew, French and German, including An Introduction to the Kabbalah by Moshe Hallamish and Rav Avraham Itzhak HaCohen Kook: Between Rationalism and Mysticism by Benjamin Ish-Shalom.
Dr. Susan Handelman was Professor of English and Jewish Studies for twenty years at the University of Maryland and has recently moved to Israel to join the faculty of the English Department at Bar-Ilan University. She is the author of The Slayer of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory and Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Scholem, Benjamin and Levinas. She has also co-edited, with Joseph Smith, Psychoanalysis and Religion and co-translated and edited On the Essence of Chassidus by Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Softcover, 510 pages
(original hardcover edition published in year 2000 with ISBN 965-7108-23-3)
Praise for Torah of the Mothers (in hardcover):
As I read with pure delight the profound, innovative and scholarly Torah of the Mothers, I couldn't stop thinking about my grandmother's tears when she told me that her father refused to hire a melamed to teach her Torah because she was a girl.
As these articulate essays attest, not only are women today learning and teaching Torah on the highest levels, they are also expressing and arranging their Chidushei Torah (new and original interpretations of the Torah) in written form. One aspect of this book that I found incredibly exciting was the academic, spiritual and personal dialogue created between younger scholars and their veteran mentors.
In light of the Midrash (Tanchuma, Re'eh 14) which explains Torat Imekha (“your mother”) as Torat Umatekha (“your nation”), I see this volume as a catalyst in the process of transforming the woman's Torah to the nation's Torah and highly recommend it to one and all.
Founder and Director of MaTaN Women's Institute of Torah Studies
Torah of the Mothers is an important anthology of articles written by women Torah educators. It is a very fine work of serious scholarship, and a pleasure to read.
Rabbi Chaim Brovender
Dean of Ohr Torah Stone, Efrat
What has now been called a quiet revolution is now bearing its first fruits. These [contemporary Jewish] women have marked their presence with...Torah of the Mothers. The anthology is significant because it represents the current transition of Israel's first generation of female Torah scholars from students to teachers.
Ha'aretz English Edition
...[an] amazing volume...these 23 contributors to this book, women scholars steeped in Torah study, have found their own voice, not to change the law, but to inspire their readers and pupils. A special feminine quality pervades as women bring their own unique insights into classical texts.
A good example is the article, "The Souls that they Made - Physical Infertility and Spiritual Fecundity" by Tamara Goshen-Gottstein. Besides being a Torah scholar, Tamara is also a certified childbirth assistant and a labour companion. She works with a group of midwives exploring Jewish texts related to midwifery and birth. Each contributor has used her own background, as well as intricate knowledge of rabbinic texts, to add a new quality of empathy and compassion to our knowledge of Torah.
Significantly, the book ends with an appeal by Esther Sha'anan for "Torah of the Mothers - Beyond the Study Hall." She urges this new generation of Torah scholars not to confine their learning to the bet hamedrash but to take on board the ancient Jewish female virtue of lovingkindness. [Readers will] not fail to be profoundly impressed, not only by the depth of Jewish women's scholarship today but even more important, by their piety, respect and compassion. The book is overflowing with inspiration for men and women alike.
Torah of the Mothers is not designed to present topics that relate to women and Judaism or to promote a feminist agenda, but rather to showcase the contribution of women to contemporary Torah scholarship. As indicated in the verse from which the book derives its title, there is a difference between "mussar avicha" and "Torat imecha". The editors contend, based on Shemot 19:3, that the Torah was given to "the fathers" ("Bnai Yisrael") and to "the mothers" ("Beit Yaacov"), and that each was charged to transmit it from their unique perspectives. As such, the flourishing of Torah scholarship among Jewish women today has added an important dimension to Jewish learning. This is truly reflected in the quality and depth of the essays in this volume.
Torah of the Mothers is a celebration of the contemporary proliferation of Torah scholarship among women, and is a valuable contribution to Torah scholarship in general.
Rabbi Stanley Peerless
Torah Community Connections
I will wager that we are the first [reading] group to use this book as a study text. It only came out from Urim 4 weeks ago....this volume has some astonishing and brilliant writing. "Words on Fire" by Joy Rochwarger, both as teaching essay and tribute to her beloved teacher, Nechama Leibovitz z"l, is as good as essay writing gets. I urge you all to get a copy fast. This is a present no Women's Tefillah Networker bookshelf can do without.
Women's Tefillah Network
have brought insights from their secular expertise into their reading of the sacred texts. The results are nothing less than brilliant.
Joy Rochwarger is an educationalist and was also one of very few who not only learned at the table of Nechama Leibowitz, but was her friend. Leibowitz was an unusually private person, and very little is known of her life. Rochwarger has allowed us to enter the teacher's home and her life in a modest but intimate way. She has then skillfully used that information, in a wonderfully constructed essay, to recreate a lesson given by Leibowitz on the writings of the prophet Jeremiah.
Sarah Idit Schneider is a biologist. She recognises today women's struggle to reconcile the roles of homemaker with that of community identity and scholar, and takes as her Torah response, the five daughters of Tzlafchad. These women, who are so significant the Torah names them on two occasions, had no male relations to ensure them a place to live in the Land of Israel. They asked to be given land. Moses was stumped by that question but God was so pleased with it that He not only awarded them land, but thereafter instructed that all daughters were to inherit when there were no sons. Schneider draws together the threads of their exquisite sense of timing and careful use of words, with their strength and determination in the face of community astonishment at their temerity.
Jane Falk has a PhD in Linguistics. Had you ever noticed that the first thing the Children of Israel uttered as a community was a song, after crossing the Red Sea? The next thing they did was to complain, on five occasions. In a fascinating interpretation of the use of language, Falk analyses these rhetorical question complaints thrown at Moses. She highlights the patterns of repetition of the Hebrew letters, words and grammatical devices used, to create a refined theory of the Children of Israel's regression from hope into despair.
Yael Unterman, niece of Rabbanit Marian Apple of Sydney's Great Synagogue, hears in the shofar's sound on Rosh Hashana the voice, not of Sarah as the male tradition suggests, but that of Deborah the prophet.
Rachel Adleman takes the character of Serah bat Asher, granddaughter of Jacob, and follows her mythical life through hundreds of years as the Midrashic wise woman in each generation.
Were you aware that Moses was the first recorded adoptee in the world? Caroline Peyser, clinical psychologist, looks at Moses' behaviour through a different prism.
It is unfair to single out individual contributions in this ground-breaking book. Each chapter, individually, deserves a full course of study by itself. The level of scholarship, with extensive footnotes, make this a unique resource. Give it to someone who enjoys intellectual pursuit in Judaism, to a batmitzvah girl who takes that responsibility seriously, to people who want their minds opened to a whole new range of ideas found within these ancient words, and still within the tradition.
In Sites: The Melton Centre For Jewish Education
Torah Of The Mothers is informative, inspiring, reflective, erudite, engaging, and highly recommended reading for students of Judaic traditions and beliefs, as well as the non-specialist general reader with an interest in the role of women in Judaism, both ancient and contemporary.
James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
The verse from which this book takes its title is: "Hear, my child, the instruction of your father and do not forsake the Torah of your mother" (Proverbs, l:8). Down through the centuries the Torah of fathers was published in books; the Torah of mothers was oral, passed down from mother to child in the kitchen. But now we live in a generation in which women as well as men are teaching Torah-in the academy, in the printed book, and in all kinds of places. These women teach with the same rigorous scholarship and scholarly discipline that men do, but in many cases they also connect what they teach about the ancient texts with insights into the spiritual dimensions of our lives.
Now we have this book, in which twenty-three of these women, many of them America's gifts to Israel, give us some of the Torah of women. Their bios are fascinating. One has a B.A. in Biology and a Masters in Bible. One has a Ph.D. from Princeton and has taught at Berkeley. One has studied at Barnard and Manchester University and is a Halachic Consultant for Taharat Hamishpachah at Nishmat.
One has a degree in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology from the University of Colorado and now writes on Kabbalah.
Who would have predicted a generation like this with women in it who combine this level of secular education with such knowledge of Torah?
The essays in this collection fall into four categories. The first section contains five articles in which the authors offer portraits of the teachers who most influenced their lives. The second section contains essays on biblical passages that have special meaning to women, such as the stories of the infertility of the matriarchs, the claims of the daughters of Tslafchad, and the personalities of Esther and Deborah. The third section contains studies of Rabbinic texts that deal with such issues as the images of King and Daughter in midrashic parables and the creation of the human being in the Image of God. And the last section contains a melange of essays on the themes of exile and redemption. The perspectives that the authors bring to their topics in this book range from linguistics and psychology to kabbalistic symbolism and classic rabbinic methodology.
Would that we had the space to give the reader at least a taste of many of the chapters in this collection. Let this one example suffice
to represent the rest. Five of these women draw powerful portraits of the teachers that have most influenced their lives.
One of the most moving is Gilla Ratzersdorfer Rosen's portrait of the impact that hearing just one talk by Rabbi Soloveitchik had on her. She went to the yahrtseit lecture that he gave in memory of his wife, in which he spoke of the two different personality types, the Father type and the Mother type. The Father-figure is restrained; the Mother-figure is affectionate. As the child matures, the Father-type moves towards letting go. The Mother-type moves towards intensification of the bond between herself and her child. For she can never really let go of the child who was once within her. And then she goes on to show that for the Rav, both these types are aspects of the Image of God. God has both these qualities. He disciplines but never severs the connection with us. He legislates from above and draws us close. God is Father to the people of Israel when He chastens them, in order to instruct and improve them. And God is Mother to the people of Israel when they are in need.
And then, and this was the
remarkable quality of the Rav, he moves from abstract philosophy and theory to excruciatingly personal testimony when he says: "Let me not refer to biblical verses but to ourselves: at times we run to the Almighty for advice and encouragement, like a confused son who did not perform well, at times we cling to the Shechinah like a child in
utter despair." For the Rav, there are two levels of Torah study. There is the mitsvah of studying so as to know. And there is the mitsvah of fixing a time for study so as to have a rendezvous with the Torah and with the Shechinah who trails behind the Torah. Ms. Rosen says that she did not sit in the Rav's classes for many years as others did: she did not attend to him in his old age as others did; but she was nurtured and her identity was formed in the encounter
with this lecture. As she says, "he taught me things in that talk at a moment when I needed to learn them. He not only interpreted Bible and midrash and Rambam in that talk. He told a story of personal loneliness, transcended and turned towards God. He taught me not to fear my aloneness for within it reverberates the call of God."
For centuries we have been deprived of the voice of women and of the perspective of women, at least in our formal study of Torah. But even so, we learned Torah from our mothers as well as from our fathers. Rabbi Soloveitchik provides personal testimony to this when he writes in tribute to his mother:
"Most of all I learned from my mother that Judaism expresses itself, not only in formal compliance with the Law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent, a warmth to mitsvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life—to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting on 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."
If he, the God seeker of the Halachah, could write that were it not for his mother he would have grown up soul-less and dry, what should the rest of us say?
We hope that this book, Torah of the Mothers, will be the forerunner of many more such studies that will bring the voices of women into the dialogue of the generations with the ancient texts.
Rabbi Jack Riemer
South Florida Jewish Journal
This interesting and important book brings together writings by 23 Orthodox Jewish women, Torah scholars all, but none of them rabbis or feminists, as in more liberal divisions of Judaism. In certain ways, these essays do not
differ much from other contemporary Torah commentaries here, as in similar works, are close readings of Torah and applications of its meaning to modern life. Yet these women are aware of the complexity and irony of their situation, as they reflect on themes such as the exile of the Shekhinah or
the search for authentic identity. For example, Sarah Schneider writes: "If [the rabbis] are to imitate Moshe then they must find a place of deep and authentic compassion for the women who approach them with halakhic petitions." This collection should prove thought-provoking for thoughtful Jewish readers of all persuasions.
Torah of the Mothers is a striking collection of 23 essays by Orthodox women on a variety of topics.... These women seem very comfortable with texts that go beyond standard Talmud, Midrash, and Bible commentaries; many also refer to hassidic and kabbalistic masters (see especially Miriam Birnbaum's fascinating study of the imagery of spiritual exile and Ora Wiskind Elper's description of hassidic images of the feminine in Exodus)....
Following the style of Aviva Zornberg (who is mentioned in the acknowledgements), several of the women draw on the insights of literature (Thomas Mann, Hayim Gouri, Emily Dickinson, John Milton, and Dylan Thomas)....
While some of the essays deal with biblical women (Deborah, Serah Bat Asher, Esther) or feminine imagery, most are simply thoughtful, creative readings of conversation with a broad range of traditional sources. Esther Shana'an's concluding essay reflects on the authenticity of the new "Torah of the Mothers." Emerging in this generation by adjuring women engaged in Jewish learning, a subtext is to focus on social issues and, in particular, the difficulties of single-mother families in the Orthodox community. She writes, "If I am worried about my ritual...place in the synagogue when I haven't considered [the marginalized member of the Jewish community]...I am losing touch with the essentials of Judaism."
Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish
Jewish mothers and fathers are responsible to transmit the divine message of the Torah from one generation to the next. Mothers have a special ability to imbue their children with what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik called the "living experience" of the Torah because of the love and trust they share with them. In this book of essays, a group of Orthodox Jewish women scholars who are not rabbis or feminists, have written about a number of issues that are relevant to Jewish community including: the Torah personalities who critically influenced their development; infertility of the matriarchs and the problem infertility today; the model of inheritance of the daughters of Tzlafchad as way of traversing the issues of feminism and Orthodox Judaism, Abraham's relations with non-Jews ; rabbinic views of Creation, the meaning of self-affliction on Yom Kippur, the process of repentance, the importance of Jerusalem; the experience of the Jews in Egypt and in the desert, and Moses as an adopted child and his struggle to be a leader. They have clearly demonstrated that you can adhere strictly to Halacha, without compromising in any way your ability to learn, interpret and teach Torah.
Dr. Alex Grobman
Creative, erudite, and inspiring are only a few of the adjectives I would use. The twenty-one contributors all come from the so-called Modern Orthodox community, all have learned or teach in one or more of the institutions for higher Torah education for women in Jerusalem, all have university degrees, three have doctorates, and two more probably have by now.
The book is best summed up by Tamar Goshen-Gottstein’s advice: “Do not be limited by my current perspective of the texts. Every year open your life anew; notice details in the text that may never have caught your heart before. Ponder the life issues they pose. The modern world is inundated with quantitative knowledge. We need … ‘Torah of the Mothers,’ Torah that grows, emanates and nourishes.”
The book is divided into four sections. The first is an appreciation of special teachers: the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik, Nehama Leibowitz, and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. Other sections look at biblical and rabbinic texts. The final section discusses exile and redemption.
Only space constraints prohibit me from discussing all of the worthy essays. Only a handful deal with female topics such as infertility, the daughters of Tsalofhad, Devora, Serah bat Asher, and the Exodus and the feminine in the teachings of Rabbi Yaakov of Tsbica.
There is much here to relearn and think about, but I would buy the book just for the concluding essay by Esther Sha’anan. A lawyer who has taught at Shearim and Midreshet Rachel, she describes the anguish of being a divorced mother of four young children. She suggests that “wondrous words of Torah with a uniquely feminine bent whose time has come to be revealed in the world” should include “the Torah of hesed and the highest possible standards of personal ethics.” She challenges us to consider the needs of the parentless child in the synagogue; access for the disabled; singles; children who have fled to the streets; and, unfortunately, sexual abuse in the religious world. “We seek, at our peril, to broaden our intellectual and spiritual horizons as Jewish women, while ignoring pressing social issues growing under our feet like mushrooms in the forest after a heavy rain.”
Sha’anan describes what it’s like to be marginalized and ignored, sitting, yet again, as a guest at another’s Shabbos table, and seeing a fatherless child walking into shul with no one to help him with his prayers. Do we offer to sell a widow’s hamets or phone her before holidays to say hello?
Congratulations to Urim Publications of Jerusalem for...carving out a niche for themselves by producing works on Torah Judaism that others would be fearful of publishing.
Dr. Reuven Ben Dov
I applaud all works which offer what the Book of Proverbs calls “the Torah of your mother,” and two leading Israel-based scholars, Ora Wiskind Elper and Susan Handelman, have edited a worthy addition to the library. Torah of the Mothers is a collection of essays, divided into four general categories: encomia for 20th-century teachers such as Rav Soloveitchik and Nechama Leibowitz: readings of biblical texts: readings of rabbinic texts: and then a series of essays based on the theme of exile and redemption.
I enjoyed Gilla Rosen's essay on her personal recollection of a lecture by Rav Soloveitchik, which includes a defence of a God of both genders and none.... The chapter on the daughters of Tzelaphchad is a fascinating insight into the struggle of Orthodox women.... Each of the women offers genuine intellectual stimulation, and tries to create a bridge between the emotional world and that of the mind, and this book is a valuable staging-post in the journey of women's scholarly writing.
Each author generously allows us into the world of the Orthodox woman scholar... I look forward to the next collection from these women.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild
…I read, with great curiosity and pleasure, Torah of the Mothers, a collection of scholarly essays by Jerusalem-based women on biblical and talmudic texts.
Contributors to Torah of the Mothers include academics in fields such as literary studies, linguistics, biblical and Jewish studies; teachers in religious seminaries; and independent scholars…. For example, Jane Falk, in a beautifully written essay, employs a tight linguistic methodology, analyzing what she considers to be the "rhetorical" complaining of the Children of Israel in the desert.
Sarah Idit (Susan) Schneider…uses her discussion of the daughters of Tzelofhad's persistent yet respectful appeal to Moses for inheritance rights, and his empathic and ultimately favorable response, as the basis for suggesting a similar mutually beneficial relationship for contemporary Orthodox women scholars and the rabbis to whom they must still appeal for legal decisions. Schneider says, "If women felt that rabbis had this kind of empathy with their yearning for more formal study or fuller participation in community life, any decision (even a bitter one) would still also be sweet. When instead, they are admonished for their urge to express themselves in ways that are deeply rooted in Torah but not in keeping with the traditional female role, an adversary relationship develops."
In Schneider's essay, Torah of the Mothers provides a forum not only for displaying, but discussing women's scholarship.
The preface to Torah of the Mothers concludes with the following blessing: “May this book give birth to many ‘children,’ to students blessed with the strength to build and to spread peace in the world.”
…as both a teacher and a mother I can appreciate the sentiment expressed in the metaphor of teaching as mothering…..
Sha'anan's essay is a moving description of the Orthodox community's failure to support, no less acknowledge, the deeply lonely experience of a divorced mother raising four children alone while trying to build a career for herself and, more importantly, maintain ties to Orthodoxy. She describes the experience of a mother leaving synagogue early with her children in order to avoid the hubbub of husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, for whom single women remains largely invisible during post-service socializing. She tells the story of a woman who threatened to dress as a man so she could sit with her son on the men's side of the partition in synagogue and help him find his way through the high holiday prayerbook when no man would volunteer to do so independently. Sha'anan's essay, the last one in the volume, is a powerful testament to the necessity for any community that calls itself learned, any community that dedicates itself to study, to put into practice the ethical tenets which ground its existence.
[Torah of the Mothers] demonstrates that women can master the intellectual field of traditional Jewish scholarship....
Sheila E. Jelen
Tikkun: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture & Society
A collection of essays and teachings by women Torah scholars and educators.
Jewish Book Publishing News
This volume…showcases the fruit of the ever-widening circle of Orthodox women’s Torah study of the past decade. The book is divided into four parts. In Part 1: Students and Teachers, five contributors reflect on their educational experiences and describe the qualities of their own teachers and mentors that most impressed and influenced them. The educators so honored are the Rav (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik), Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Nechama Leibowitz, Chana Balanson and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Having experienced two of them (the Rav and Nechama), I was not disappointed. Both captured not only the distinctive - even idiosyncratic – personal flavors of those two charismatic individuals but their insights and methodologies as well.
Section II, Readings of Biblical Texts, contains seven articles that discuss Biblical texts from Bereishit, Bamidbar, Shoftim, and Esther, and rabbinical texts drawn from Aggadah. The subtitles some of these articles carry bear eloquent witness to the proclivities of their authoresses, including: Physical Infertility and Spiritual Fecundity; A Defense of Deborah; and Towards a Methodology of Attitude around Women’s Issues. An excerpt from the latter is instructive of the tendentiousness that marks some of the book:
“Since We are now in a time of national crisis with Jews assimilating frighteningly rapid rate, the faith and intellectual strength of women is a resource we cannot squander… If a law is clear and closed, so be it. But if the law has room to expand, then the midrash argues for empowering women to serve their people with all of their God given gifts.”
…The article on Esther (entitled: Between Lines and Behind Masks)..makes its point…emphatically. By deftly examining the two narrative episodes (Vashti and Bigtan-Teresh) that together constitute the prologue to the story of Purim, the author is able to identify them as templates to be utilized later. This enables her, arguably, to declare that “Esther, as the protagonist of the story, personifies the empowerment of both the Jews and the women of the Persian empire.” Other contributions are just Torah – no agenda – notably those of Erica Brown (Jacob’s Strange Encounter with Pharoah) and Bryna Levy (Moshe: Portrait of the Leader as a Young Man).
Part III, Readings of Rabbinic Texts, contains three articles that focus entirely on Aggadic texts and one that treats a halakhic subject (Innui Nefesh on Yom Kippur) by means of “A Literary and Conceptual Analysis of a Talmudic Discussion.” Part IV, Exile and Redemption, contains seven essays, which range from “Galut haNeshamah in Traditional Jewish Sources and as a Contemporary Condition to “Exodus and the Feminine in the Teachings of Rabbi Yaakov of Izbica.” Several of these articles (notably the last-mentioned) acknowledge a debt to Hasidic literature, which according to these authors, lends itself more readily to a feminist exposition.
Overall, the book measures up to the standard it sets itself in the closing essay (Beyond the Study Hall):
“What I would like to propose, then, is that we not create a new definition of Torat Imekha –wondrous words of Torah with a uniquely feminist bent whose time has come to be revealed in this world – while discarding or ignoring the Torat Imekha as described by Rabbeinu Bahya: the Torah of Hesed and the highest possible standards of personal ethics.”
Dr. Moshe Sokolow
Ten Da'at: A Journal of Jewish Education
As I was riding on the subway, reading this volume, I was approached by a fellow passenger. She explained that she had seen the title and wanted to know where she could buy the book. Clearly, she felt that it met a need.
This is a potpourri of essays whose common thread is that they are written by Jewish women. These women come from a variety of academic disciplines and they bring their backgrounds and areas of expertise to bear on a plethora of subjects. These include personal role models, biblical narrative, Jewish thought, and Jewish behavior. While all the essays are written from a traditional point of view, some are written from a very personal point of view, others are works of scholarship.... Since the book covers such a wide range of subjects, the reader can dip into whichever meets one's fancy. There is truly something for everyone.
Since the main point of the book is that women are involved in such study and have something to contribute, it is a marker along the way of the developing quality of women Torah teachers and academics. This is no small statement. On the other hand, some of the essays are very poignant in making clear that there is still a way to go. The essays, whim dealt with the authors' relationship with their own role models, make this point in a very moving way. These are mostly not the traditional relationships between pupil and teacher but in most cases admiration from afar. In one case, the pupil and teacher never actually spoke!
In the future, the hope is that these same trailblazers may be mentors for the future generations of women scholars. More importantly, the greater hope is that the quality of the essays will be more important than the gender of the writers!
Miriam Klein Shapiro
Jewish Book World
In the book of Proverbs we are told, “Hear, my child, the instructions of your father and forsake not the Torah of your mother” (1:8). Commentators have argued about the meaning of the phrase “Torah of your mother”; they’ve wondered what would make these teachings unique. Torah of the Mothers: Contemporary Women Read Jewish Texts, edited by Ora Wiskind Elper and Susan Handelman, gives us the opportunity to study women’s Torah and to see the different ways women view traditional texts and the meaning behind those texts.
The book was conceived as “Torah teachings’ rather than a compilation of academic essays” and the editors hope the essays will be “learned’ as well as ‘read’” – that the words will be “slowly imbibed, savored and internalized.” What shines through in all these essays is the authors’ love of Torah and learning. Particularly in the first section, where the writers offer tributes to their teachers or mentors, the book catches the excitement of learning and the large effect that their studies had on the women. This Torah learning is not limited to the study hall but warms and energizes the rest of their lives.
In the second section, which deals with a variety of biblical texts, Tamara Goshen-Gottstein writes about the two stages of Torah study. The first stage is the intellectual one: she seeks the text’s historical context and its place in Jewish thought. The second stages touches her life in a different way. She tries “to internalize the thought and let it challenge my preconceptions, hear it echo and practice what I learn from it, fall and reach again, pray, grow deeper its practice, until eventually it becomes the fabric of my life.” This is not study as an intellectual exercise; instead, her work infuses her life with new meaning and understanding. Torah study becomes a means to spiritual enlightenment.
The best essays in the book open new ways of viewing old stories. Ilana Goldstein Saks shows how women’s struggles and Jewish struggles are related in the book of Esther and then expands on that connection by relating those struggles to the modern world. Two essays about Moses offer new insights into his character: Caroline Peyser by analyzing how his adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter affected his life and Bryna Jocheved Levy by showing his ethical development. The psychological and linguistic look at the Children of Israel’s complaints during their journey from Egypt to Canaan, written by Jane Falk, gives excellent insight into human nature.
…I found the book thought-provoking, and in some cases inspiring…. Those who are familiar with the traditional style of learning will be intrigued with what the writers have to offer…. Torah of the Mothers has much to offer all readers; it succeeds in its given task – to breathe “a special life to all parts of the Torah.”
Rabbi Rachel Esserman
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 humility. The authors are 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 the 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 Leibowitz dies, of weighing whether or not she is entitled to tear keriyah [to rip her clothers] as a sign of mourning. "Although my grief was overwhelming," ROchwarger writes, "I was not an immediate relative." The equanimity of this kind of statemtn, 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. Soloveitchik discussed the Talmudic text Kiddushin 30b 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 thrid essay about a teacher, Yardeno Cope-Yossef reprints letters that she received, over the years, from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. In on (that she receied when she was 16) Kaplan writes, "I would like to thank you for helping me fined a theme for my devar Torah after Minchah on Shabbos." 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 studet, of physically looking into a teacher's face, even if one must travel a long was to do so.
The editors, Elper and Handelman, choose to undergird their understanding of what Torah of the Mothers is through something shared by Rachwarger'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 Almightly 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.
Twenty-three essays by Orthodox women on a variety of topics, including biblical women, feminine imagery and "difficult" texts.
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.
The Jewish Eye