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What was the women's role in the rites of sacrifice? Did they content themselves with only accompanying the men in the Song of the Sea after the Red Sea parted? Unusual answers to these and many other questions are gathered in a new book that is devoted, for the first time in Jewish history, to a feminist interpretation of the Torah.

The book was initiated by Reform cantor Sarah Sager. Fifteen years ago, she was invited to speak at a conference of Reform women to discuss the Torah portion of the week. By chance, the portion was Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24), the main subject of which is the sacrifice of Isaac, and Sager tried to find a women's view of the subject in the literature.

However, even though this was a Torah reading with clear feminine and maternal aspects, in the traditional sources there is hardly any mention of this. Thus she decided to make this a challenge for the women in her audience. The time has come, she told them, to create a women's interpretation of Torah.

Thus the idea was born that recently has ripened into a thick volume of 1,350 pages, with the participation of more than 100 women of academic stature in the fields of Bible research or Jewish law and exegetics. And it is interesting to note that not all of the women are Reform: Among them are Blu Greenberg, one of the leaders of Orthodox feminism in the United States, and Professor Yaira Amit, a secular Bible researcher from Israel.

Last week "The Torah: A Women's Commentary" was launched in Israel and in the near future it will be translated into Hebrew. Rabbi Hara Person, the editor in chief at the Union for Reform Judaism Press and who participated in the writing of the book, said in a conversation with Haaretz during a visit to Israel that the book is doubly unique: It has been written by women only and it also focuses on the woman's angle in the Five Books of Moses: "Books have already come out in the past by women who dealt with interpreting the Bible, but there has never been a comprehensive commentary on the Bible that has been written by women," she explains.

Different interpretations

The book is divided into the traditional weekly Torah readings, and each of the portions is examined in five different ways. First, a close reading of the text, verse by verse, that seeks to reveal the explicit or implicit levels in the story that pertain to women. Then, an interpretation is given that is different from the main interpretation; there is a discussion of the traditional exegeses and also a discussion of the reading from a modern angle. Finally there is a chapter called "Voices," which brings Jewish women's poetry that is in some way connected to the reading.

Person notes that at the outset of the work on the project "there were those who wanted to give it the character of a 'modern midrash (commentary}: to talk more about feelings and about how we connect to the various women in the Torah. But over time it was decided to give the book more of a research direction. We wanted a project that relates to the Torah seriously."

Person details a number of typical examples of women's commentary in the book. One is from the story of the Song of the Sea after the parting of the Red Sea. According to the interpretation that is given in the book, the women did not content themselves - as is mentioned in the verses - with accompanying the men's singing with drums and dancing. According to this commentary, which is based on a common tradition in the ancient world whereby it was women who wrote the poetry about men's victories, it was the women themselves composed the Song of the Sea itself.

In another place, the commentary relates to the sacrificial rites, in which ostensibly women played no role and everything was reserved for the Kohanim - the male priests. Nevertheless, women did have a role - states the commentary - and it was the preparation of the special garments that served the priests in their rites.

A third example concerns the distinction that the Torah makes between the unclean period of a woman who has given birth to a son and one who has given birth to a daughter: one week for a son, two weeks for a daughter. The commentary cites a non-Jewish anthropologist, a woman, who argues that the reason for this is that in the ancient world, the rite of circumcision of baby boys was considered a means of protection from evil spirits and other ills that could harm the mother or the child (as though "cutting into the living flesh" can appease the wrath of the gods). Since this protection does not exist when a daughter is born, the mothers had to remain in isolation for a longer period.

The Bible was a male world

These examples raise the question of whether the feminist project does not, ultimately, emphasize in fact women's inferiority in the world of the Bible.

"The ancient world definitely was a male world," replies Person. "There were of course women there too, but many aspects of their lives are altogether hidden and not mentioned. Perhaps they played a secondary role, but now at least it is possible to see it."

Moreover, adds Person, "it is important that we understand the male nature of that world so that we can see the context because of which things were written the way they were written."

Isn't a women's view of text that is so masculine in its nature artificial, and doesn't it take the text out of its authentic context? "We are not trying to rewrite the text, but rather to add another voice to the discussion. The study of Torah after all does deal with finding as many voices as possible for learning. So our learning, too, isn't here to cancel out the existing voices, but rather to add a new voice to them." Person relates that one of the questions that arose frequently during the course of the work was the question of whether it was right that the book be written only by women. However, in the end she is comfortable with the decision: "I don't think that it is important in principle that a book like this be written only by women but at the current point in time this was important. We are at a very special moment in Jewish history when for the first time a critical mass of scholarly women has emerged.

"In the past there were such women here and there, like Nechama Leibowitz, but not an entire group. Therefore this was an opportunity to emphasize this special moment."

In Person's opinion, the book will transmit the message not only of the egalitarian aspect of the Reform Movement but also of its scholarly facet: "So many people think that the Reform Movement is not serious, that it's just a matter of lazy Jews. It is clear to me that the people who hate Reform Jews will continue to hate them, but this book makes it clear that this movement takes both Torah and Jewish tradition seriously.

"We are not, after all, trying to sweep out the traditional commentary because there are things in it that we don't like - rather, we are trying to explain the historical and cultural context because of which the things were written the way they were written."

Person adds that the book has had a positive response in the Jewish world. "For example, there was an article by an Orthodox rabbi whose name I can't remember, who wrote that in his congregation they might not agree with everything that is written in the book, but the book 'definitely teaches us Torah.'"

The project cost $1.5 million, in part because of the need to bring together texts by researchers from all of the world and to secure the rights to the poems of another approximately 150 poets.

During her visit to Israel, Person has begun to make the first contacts toward the translation of the book into Hebrew: There is already a donor, but there isn't a publisher yet and the women of the editorial board are still debating whether to translate the book as is or to re-commission a large number of the texts from Israeli women - not to mention the need to translate the poetry from various languages. At the same time, Person is happy to say that there is already interest in translating the book into German as well.

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