Writing Women into the Torah

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

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Secondly, the "women" listed belong to the "you" being addressed. (The word is often translated as "your wives)" as if the women are not part of the "all of you" in v. 9.) But here "women" are not the only ones subject to belonging. Every individual belongs to a household, a clan, a tribe. In the Hebrew Bible, belonging is what constitutes a people. In this particular passage, leadership and power do not set one apart as an autonomous individual. No one, not even the most powerful male tribal leader, stands alone. women learningFor better or for worse, everyone is held in an inescapable web of interconnectedness and belonging.

With all of that, one might still dismiss the applicability of the text to us as contemporary women. Yet I believe we should not overlook the value of this text for women "this day" (29:9). Perhaps the historical context can account for some of the dispiriting force ofandrocentrism. The biblical authors could not imagine women in roles other than daughters who then became wives (or widows, a state also defined by marriage). Women simply were not necessarily visible if they did not fullill wifely or maternal duties. Here we can summon the traditional concept of "the Torah spoke in the language of human beings" (dibrah torah kilshon b'nei adam). An alternative translation of this saying would be: "The Tarah spoke in the language of men." It is for us, as students of Torah and members of the covenantal people, to help construct our very lives in a way that takes text out of its historical context, out of its male dress or costume, and applies it to our own time. In this way, we redress Torah--and address it to ourselves and our own community, much as the rabbis who authored the Midrash and Talmud did. It is time to do no less than to dress the Torah in the language of women.

The Torah itself is explicit about the fact thar this covenant is not a thing of the pasr. As 29:13-14 makes clear, this covenant was intended for each one of us in our own time.

The covenant is made not only with those who stood in Moab lisrening to Moses' words, but also with future generations. Every Israelite since that day, and every Jew to come into this world in the future, is directly and personally included in this covenant. Thus are we--those reading the Torah now-empowered to forge our own relationship to the contents of the ongoing revelation. The tradition is not fixed; quite the contrary. it is our very active and receptive listening that gives this text its meaning and its very sanctity. The text gains its kedushah ("holiness") from those in every generation who read it and add their voices to the endless. sacred conversation about what this all means. If women exclude themselves from that process, the full power, relevancy, and truth of the Torah are diminished.

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Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses

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.