For years I studied and taught Torah, learning and teaching in many settings, including several batei midrash, teacher training programs, institutes, the Israeli army, and for Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum. In a word, limmud Torah, the study of Torah, was the air that I breathed. Yet as I was using the new feminist lenses to study the Jewish texts, my heart began to sink deeper and deeper. Recognizing the trivial but painful fact that my tradition, my love, my identity, was defined by men, for men, reflecting male life experience, interest and needs, made me very confused and left me with a strong sense of betrayal and abandonment.
For some years I tried to deal with this challenge through feminist theology, and wrote my Master’s thesis under the direction of Professor Tamar Ross. For a while the liveliness that feminist theology afforded me, diminished my anger and sense of helplessness. But unlike many feminist theologians, I did not feel I could discard the entire tradition and create new rituals from scratch – even if I toyed with the idea from time to time – because I felt that the Torah is a mirror of reality, a mirror that calls us to contend with reality in order to make it better. Even if I didn’t like some of the sacred texts, I understood that they demand a response. Precisely the ones that disturbed me the most are the ones where I have to take the responsibility of tikkun, or repair.
And then, a miracle happened. I found a little pamphlet of midrashim, exegetical commentaries and explorations of Biblical texts, written by Rivkah Lubitch, an Israeli Talmida Chachama, scholar, and To’enet Rabanit , an advocate in rabbinical court. In it were fifteen midrashim, witty, deep, uplifting and empowering, challenging the patriarchy and injustice from within a deep knowledge and love of the texts, and rabbinic culture.
I tried using this method of creating new midrashim myself. Midrash, literally, “searching out,” is a literary tool created by the ancient rabbis to discover within and draw out of the sacred texts new meanings relating to their own lives, problems and values. Midrash works through close readings of texts, syllogisms, word plays on roots and etymologies, filling in gaps, and reading texts in light of one another. Then, with a little bundle of women’s midrashim in my hand, I set sail on a new journey around Israel, travelling wherever I was welcomed, to teach those midrashim as kitvei kodesh, holy writings, and to tell whoever was ready to listen, that the other half of Judaism is being written in our days.
One night, in Modi’in, Israel, I met Nechama Weingarten Mintz, a woman my age, who shared that she, too, had a collection of midrashim written by women, and that she too had realized their redemptive power. We both felt that these midrashim not only enabled us to stay both Jewish and feminist, but were a new, empowering vehicle that could vivify the tradition and heal society too. And so we took upon ourselves this project of publishing midrashim written by contemporary Israeli women. We had no budget, but after we sent out a handful of emails soliciting midrashim, we were flooded with hundreds of midrashim.
And as a result, in 2009, we compiled and published Volume One of Dirshuni: Midrashei Nashim. The volume contains ninety midrashim, written by thirty-seven Israeli women–Conservative, Reform and avowedly secular, of all political stripes and ethnic backgrounds, from cities, kibbutzim, small towns, and suburbs. On publication, some people loved it, others hated and banned it. But above all, the book was a liberation and revelation for the women who wrote it – and, it increasingly seems, for its many readers, and for the people learning and arguing over it, in batei midrash, study circles, and elsewhere.
Most of the midrashim in Dirshuni dealt with issues of special concern to women, but there were many others of more universal interest, and all represent the existential struggles of Israeli women. A great deal of them explored the treatment of women by Jewish law and rabbinic authority in the traditional sources, in the community, and in the rabbinical courts. They offer deep and wide-ranging discussions of Biblical personalities, women’s religious roles, sexuality and fertility, prayer, the meaning of Torah study, different issues of social justice, theology, and more.
After publication, we kept receiving many, many wonderful and powerful midrashim, which dare to engage new subjects not dealt with in Volume One – incest, mamzerut, Holocaust theology, and more. But, as usual, im eyn kemach, eyn Torah – ve-afilu Torat Nashim, if there is no flour, there is no Torah—even women’s Torah. In order to complete the project I am turning to the sisterhood, to help support my Kickstarter campaign to enable me to finish Dirshuni Volume Two, and I invite you to take part in taking responsibility to leave our daughters a Judaism that has kitvei kodesh, holy writings, written by women too.
I leave you with a small taste of our project, a midrash, written by Rivkah Lubitch and included in Volume One of Dirshuni (here in English translation, by Yehudah Mirsky).
And the daughters of Tzelophchad drew near…and these are his daughters’ names: Machlah, Noa and Choglah and Milkah and Tirtzah (Numbers 27:1)
Why were they referred to, first, as ‘the daughters of Tzelophchad’ and only afterwards by their own names?
Because of the Tzel and Pachad, shadow and fear, that was in them at first. For at first they dwelled in their father’s shadow, and feared to raise their heads. Once they drew near to one another, they were empowered, and known by their own names, as is written, And the daughters of Tzelophchad drew near…and these are his daughters’ names.
On July 27, the 29th of Tammuz, I will observe the 909th yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shlomo Yizhaki, better known as Rashi. Normally, an author has no deadline to finish her first novel, but I was determined to get Volume One of Rashi’s Daughters out in July 2005, to take advantage of all the hoopla I expected would commemorate Rashi’s 900th yahrtzeit. As it turned out, I was the only hoopla, but who knows if my historical trilogy about Rashi’s daughters would ever have been published without that impetus?
While Rashi is justifiably celebrated for his Bible and Talmud commentaries, few Jews know that it was under his authority and that of his Ashkenazi colleagues that Jewish women in medieval France enjoyed power over their own lives that their Sephardic sisters in the so-called “golden age” of Spain could only imagine. These were the days when Jews enjoyed a monopoly on long-distance trade, many traveling as far as the Levant. Jewish merchants became welcome visitors to French estates, buying the estates’ surfeit produce and selling them imported goods. By necessity, Jewish wives assumed the responsibilities of running the home and managing the family business while their husbands were away.
Even before Rashi was born, Jewish women were already the beneficiaries of edicts by Rabbeinu Gershom, which gave them previously unheard-of power in marriage. These prohibited a man from both taking a second wife and divorcing his wife without her consent. In addition, a woman was allowed to initiate divorce and receive a get, even against her husband’s will, and Jewish merchants were expected to give their wives a conditional get when they left on a journey in order to protect them from becoming agunot (chained wife).
Marriage was not the only arena in which the Ashkenaz Jewish woman asserted herself. Many sought to increase their ritual participation by fulfilling those ritual obligations which, according to the Mishnah, women were not obligated to perform—mitzvot aseh she-hazeman grama, the “time-bound positive commandments.” Obvious examples include blowing and hearing the shofar (at Rosh Hashanah), and taking the lulav and dwelling in the sukkah (at Sukkot). Others, perhaps less obvious, are reciting the Shema (said in the morning and at night) and wearing tefillin or tzitzit (worn in the daytime).
In Sephardic lands, these ritual exemptions became outright prohibitions, but the women in Rashi’s community not only insisted on performing these mitzvot from which they were exempt, they wanted to say the blessings for them as well. Rashi’s teacher, Rabbi Isaac haLevi, taught that “We do not stop women from saying the blessing over lulav and sukkah … since she performs the mitzvah, she cannot do so without the blessing.” It is interesting that they use the phrase “we do not stop women” rather than “women are permitted.” This suggests that the women took these mitzvot upon themselves and insisted on reciting the blessing as well.
There was yet another area affecting women in which Rashi argued against society’s restrictions. When it came to limitations on a woman while she was niddah (menstruating), Rashi made it clear these proscriptions applied only between husband and wife. In a time when superstitions about menstruation abounded (a scholar was forbidden to greet a niddah because the utterances of her mouth were unclean; a man shouldn’t walk behind a niddah since even the dust beneath her feet caused impurity; an untimely death resulted from walking between two menstruating women), a responsum of Rashi declared that, “Dishes which the niddah touches are clean, even for her husband. For people today are already impure from graves, houses of dead people, and corpses, and we will not be purified until the days of the Messiah. Therefore it is permitted to touch and use whatever the niddah touches.” He continues, “Niddah prohibitions are only to prevent sin between her and her husband; impurity does not pertain here.” Thus, while many of his Sephardic contemporaries were forbidding a niddah to even enter the synagogue, in Troyes, France the niddah “attends services as usual, prays as usual, and if she is accustomed to study words of Torah, she studies as usual.”
Finally—women studying Torah. Rashi, whose own daughters learned Talmud and Torah, was among many rabbis who obligated a man to teach his daughter those texts concerning the mitzvot, for “otherwise how can she observe them properly.” Sadly this golden age for medieval Ashkenaz women was short-lived. When the Black Death swept Europe, people held witches responsible, which tainted all learned and presumptuous women. It would take five hundred years before Jewish women would again reach the heights they attained in Rashi’s time, and in the case of initiating divorce, we are still waiting.
For those who want to learn more, I recommend these recent books:
Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe by Avraham Grossman
Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe by Elisheva Baumgarten