Writing Women into the Torah

It is time to do no less than to dress the Torah in the language of women.


Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

For the last four or five decades, feminist scholars have asserted that the Bible is an androcentric work reflecting a time when men controlled property, politics, and religious life, not to mention women themselves. Those insights de-legitimized the Torah as a source of meaning and authority for many women. How could a sacred text reflect the injustices of patriarchy? It did not seem possible.

However, the extent to which patriarchy de-legitimizes the Bible as a sacred book for women has become┬ámore nuanced in recent scholarship. While the Bible’s male-centeredness generally goes urj women's commentaryundisputed, at least in academic circles, various scholars (such as Phyllis Trible, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, and Meyers) have highlighted a number of potentially mitigating or even redemptive elements .. concerning women. First are the powerful and highly delineated female chalacters in the Bible, most notably Sarah, Rebekah, Tamar, Miriam, Rahab, Deborah, and Ruth, all of whom are leaders who transform the private or public realms in which they act. Second are the Bible’s commandments that express a clear concern for the care of the marginal and/or impoverished in society: the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. Third are the deep covenantal principles articulated in the Torah that can be used for feminist purposes. Parashat Nitzavim exemplifies this, with its rich, powerful–even revolutionary–concepts that can be used to further the creation of a feminist Judaism. The parashah begins: “You stand this day, all of you, before your God–you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer–to enter into the covenant of your God” (29:9-10). Let’s take a close look at the language surrounding women.

First of all, ftom the nature of the list, one can pretty safely assume that the women were not tribal leaders, elders, woodchoppers, or water drawers. The crucial fact, however, is that they are included. They are standing before God as full members of the covenantal community. In many other instances in the Torah, only the men are addressed or female inclusion is ambiguous–eclipsed by the nature of the Hebrew language itself, which retains a grammatically masculine form whether addressing or referring to an all-male group or a mixed male and female group.

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Dianne Cohler-Esses is the first Syrian Jewish woman to be ordained as a rabbi. She was ordained in 1995 at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is currently a freelance educator and writer, teaching and writing about a wide range of Jewish subjects. She lives in New York City with her journalist husband and their three children.

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