What began as one cantor's exploration into exactly what the Bible doesn't say about the matriarch Sarah has resulted, some 15 years later, in the publication of The Torah: A Women's Commentary, a feat that has been touted as a seminal moment in the history of biblical scholarship, as well as a considerable step forward in the decades-old push to achieve gender equity in Judaism.
Published jointly by the Women of Reform Judaism and the Union for Reform Judaism Press, this mammoth Torah commentary and translation weighs in at 1,350 pages and draws on the work of roughly 200 writers, including scholars and rabbis who span the religious spectrum from secular to the devout. And, in sharp contrast to the bulk of past commentaries — which largely, if not exclusively, featured the work of men — all of the text material used to explicate the Torah was done by women.
"The Jewish story needs women's voices to be complete, to be whole, to be fully holy," said Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, regional director of URJ's Pennsylvania Council.
Elwell, who served as a consulting editor and an editorial board member on the project, added that this book "is going to be around for a long time. I think this is a great gift that the Reform movement is giving the Jewish world."
The idea for an all-women's commentary had its genesis in 1992. Cantor Sarah Sager of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, Ohio, was preparing a d'var Torah focusing on the archetypal episode in Genesis, when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac — and he nearly does so.
But Sager, according to an introductory essay, became fixated on Sarah, who isn't mentioned again in the sacred text until her death. The Torah records nothing of Sarah's reaction, and it has been left to interpreters and commentators to fill in the gaps.
"For the very first time, it occurred to me that Sarah was part of this story, that her feelings and her reactions mattered — that if she had been asked to sacrifice her child, the story might have ended right there," wrote Sager.
While she found little in traditional rabbinic literature on the subject, she did discover some contemporary literary exegesis, mostly penned by women.
But Sager found that this material was dispersed in lots of different sources and needed a central address.
So, at the 1993 convention of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods — now the Women of Reform Judaism — Sager proposed that the movement produce a women's commentary, a suggestion that was approved by the board of NFTS soon after.
Much of the time since then has gone toward raising the necessary funds — to the tune of $1.5 million — and figuring out what such a volume would look like and whose work it would contain.
The editorial board, which included Sager, eventually selected biblical scholars Tamar Cohn Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss to serve as the commentary's overall editors.
One of the biggest questions to answer was: Should they use an existing Torah translation or do a fresh English version of the Five Books of Moses?
A Feminist Enterprise?
Through an agreement with the Jewish Publication Society, A Women's Commentary — with the exception of the entire book of Genesis and some other key terms — essentially shares the same English translation of the Torah that appeared in the 2007 volume, The Contemporary Torah: A Gender-Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation.
Weiss, a Bala Cynwyd resident who earned a doctorate in Bible and Ancient Near East Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and who currently teaches at New York's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, explained that, conceptually, though not graphically, the book was modeled after Mikraot Gedolot, a medieval work known for utilizing biblical commentary from different eras.
Weiss asserted that A Women's Commentary employs an unusual structure in that, in addition to the core commentary that appears beneath the biblical texts, it incorporates additional segments that focus on post-biblical and even present-day interpretations.
Work by 10 or so Philadelphia-area women is included.
"Twenty years ago, there weren't enough female scholars to do this," acknowledged Weiss, adding that now there are almost too many people to include.
The editors also appended poetry and other writings to the end of each parshah in a section called "Voices." Elwell led the team that selected these pieces from more than 100 writers — works they hoped would stimulate discussion on a particular issue mentioned in the Torah.
In December, the book made its debut at the Reform movement's biennial.
The first printing of more than 12,000 volumes has already sold out; a second printing of 10,000 is set for March, according to Shelley Lindauer, executive director of WRJ.
Weiss contended that while women are the prime audience, men can get much out of utilizing the work during Torah study.
"Whenever you are trying to [analyze] Torah and figure out what this ancient, sacred text means for us today, you really need as many voices as possible helping you out," said Weiss.
So, is it fair to call the whole project a feminist endeavor?
Replied Elwell: "If we understand feminism as honoring and celebrating women's contributions, if we understand feminism as including and encouraging a wider range of understanding of who women can be, then it is deeply feminist enterprise."