Women to get a Torah commentary of their own

NEW YORK — Amid a growing interest in Jewish women's studies, a Reform group is commissioning what will be the most comprehensive women's Torah commentary ever.

Announced days before Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah, the book will be written entirely by women and is expected to take about five years to complete.

Edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, a professor of Bible at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, the commentary will consist of contributions from a range of Jewish women scholars. It is sponsored by the Women of Reform Judaism.

"We want to bring the women of the Torah from the shadows into the limelight, from their silences into speech, from the margins to which they have often been relegated to the center of the page," Eskenazi said in a recent speech describing the project.

A number of books have been published in the past decade addressing women in the Bible and offering women's perspectives on the Bible.

However, the new book will be the first "classical" women's commentary, according to Eskenazi, meaning that it will cover individual Torah portions in their entirety.

Each portion will involve a number of different writers and will contain an overview, followed by the biblical text in Hebrew and English, a central commentary and additional voices.

Although under Reform auspices, the project will solicit submissions from women of all streams of Judaism. It is not intended to replace the Reform movement's Torah commentary, edited by Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, but to serve as a supplement.

"Just like Adam really needed a companion in order to make his life complete, so Eve was created, we feel that to make the Torah speak to today's men and women you need a companion to Plaut's commentary," said Ellen Rosenberg, executive director of Women of Reform Judaism.

If the experience of previous women's Torah commentaries is any indicator, the book should sell well.

"The Women's Torah Commentary: New Insights from Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions," edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, is one of the top sellers of the Vermont-based Jewish Lights Publishing.

Stuart Matlins, the company's publisher, declined to offer specific sales numbers. But he said Goldstein's book, which came out two years ago, is "extremely popular, and not just among women."

Responding to a growing interest in Jewish women's issues, Jewish Lights recently created a separate category in its catalog specifically for women's interest books.

"The more women's commentaries, the better," said Goldstein, who is director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto and is working on a book with women's perspectives on the Haftarah.

Such books, Goldstein said, are particularly important for bat mitzvah girls, who "need a lot of role modeling."