Maggie Anton isn’t afraid to offer cutting critiques of Jewish institutions and clergy.
“If rabbis in the liberal Jewish denominations were as expert in Talmud as the Orthodox rabbis are, I think they’d get a lot more respect from the Orthodox,” said Anton, who will be in the Philly area from April 30 to May 2, at Germantown Jewish Centre, Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Perhaps she has the confidence to make such remarks because she’s not an outsider, but a dues-paying member.
The author of the popular Rashi’s Daughters trilogy, centering on the medieval Torah commentator’s three children who studied Talmud at a time when women did not study Jewish texts, belongs to Reform and Conservative congregations in Los Angeles and donates money to her son’s Orthodox congregation in Arizona. She also belongs to Women of the Reform Movement, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
How can one woman have ties to all three movements, considering all their differences? The answer, she said, is that none of the Jewish streams holds all the answers for her. In addition to arguing that Reform and Conservative rabbis could benefit from more intensive study of Jewish law, Anton said she thinks the Orthodox movement should allow women to be ordained as rabbis.
“We need women who are knowledgeable in Jewish laws so that they can go in and advocate for women in a way that a male rabbi cannot,” Anton said in a telephone interview.
The author was raised in a secular, socialist household in Los Angeles and spent several decades as a clinical chemist before starting to write novels.
In 1970, she joined a synagogue because she and her husband were looking for community in Glendale, Calif, she said. But she did not start to seriously study Jewish texts until two decades later, when she took a women’s Talmud class taught by Rachel Adler, the respected feminist Jewish theologian.
“I knew what the Talmud was, having read The Chosen,” Anton said of the popular Chaim Potok novel. “But after I signed up for the class, I fell in love” with the text.
Anton started to study the Talmud regularly. Adler mentioned Rashi’s daughters, who were reputed to be very learned and wrapped tefillin. Anton started to research the women and confirmed what Adler had said.
“I was so astonished to realize that 900 years ago, Jewish women were doing these men’s mitzvot, and here I had thought that we were the first generation to be doing these things,” she said.
Anton’s latest book, Rav Hisda’s Daughter, is set in Third Century Babylonia, around the time the Talmud was being compiled, and follows Hisdadukh, who is learned and has magical abilities, but is prevented by her gender from becoming a rabbi. Hisdadukh is mentioned in the Talmud more than any other woman, Anton said.
“Certainly, one of my goals for the people who are reading Rav Hisda’s Daughter is for them to see how the Talmud was created. Many Jews are woefully ignorant of the Talmud,” she said.
Her new book is the first in another planned trilogy, and she is now working on the second novel. She continues to study the Talmud and has made several trips to Israel, visits which have included praying with the Women of the Wall, who gather monthly to pray at the Kotel.
“We didn’t pray quietly,” she said of one particular Rosh Chodesh service in 2007. “I’m one of those kind of people who challenges authority. I don’t know that I ever sang ‘Hallel’ louder than that day.”
Anton said she has been distressed recently by the arrests of women at the Kotel but is optimistic about the proposed plan to create a section where men and women can pray together.
“The proposal they came up with seems like something doable,” she said.
For Anton, the disputes that occur today are nothing new.
“You see it in the Talmud over and over again, the different rabbis that disagree pretty violently, but they accept if you’re in the Hillel school you follow this and if you’re in the Shammai school you would follow Shammai’s ruling,” Anton said.
The difference, she lamented, is that back then, “these groups still intermarried and they all considered themselves Jews. I look at today’s Judaism and it so fractured.”