Womens Torah study will be a gathering of the vibes

Genesis introduces us to Tamar, a twice-widowed woman who tricks her father-in-law into a sexual liaison, and then gives birth to his twin sons — one of whom sires the ancestors of King David.

Participants at the upcoming East Bay Women’s Torah Study will use text and context to draw their own impressions of Tamar — specifically, in regard to her relationship with power.

Rabbi Judy Shanks

“At first, she seems to have no power at all,” said Rabbi Carol Caine, a Lehrhaus Judaica instructor who will lead the discussion. “She is a childless widow in a society in which women only gained security through marriage and children. Her strategy is very risky and almost gets her killed, but she triumphs in the end and gives birth to twins. This story raises many fascinating questions about how women claim power, and the limits of their power.”

The April 30 Torah study, called Kolot Nashim, or “voices of women,” will offer women a smorgasbord of the provocative and the profound, balancing traditional Torah study with spirituality in chanting, song and movement.

Scholars, rabbis and educators from throughout the Bay Area donate their time to ensure that the conference, now in its fifth year, can remain free. Expected to attract more than 100 people, the 2 1/2-hour event draws women from all streams of Judaism and all levels of observance.

Rachel Biale

This is big-tent Judaism: “You don’t have to be affiliated to attend, and the fact that many groups are taking part in it and helping to promote it means that there are a lot of entry points,” said organizer Lori Rosenthal.

Rabbi Judy Shanks of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, with help from the synagogue’s Rosh Hodesh group, organized the first Kolot Nashim five years ago to honor the Reform movement’s publication of “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.” More than 200 women showed up.

“We were overwhelmed and delighted by the outpouring of response,” said Shanks, who this year will lead a workshop on Pirke Imahot (wisdom of our mothers, a pun on Pirke Avot, or wisdom of our fathers). “I sensed then that women often feel more comfortable asking their questions and telling their personal stories in a single-gender group.”

Naomi Seidman

Each year, a new congregation hosts the event, and volunteers from that synagogue take over planning. The conference has made its way through the East Bay, with stops in Lafayette (Reform Temple Isaiah), Oakland (Conservative Temple Beth Abraham), Berkeley (Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom) and Danville (independent Beth Chaim Congregation) — and this year, back to Beth Abraham.

“Women who did not receive the same quality or quantity of Jewish education as their male peers feel additionally intimidated and tend to stay away from Jewish study if they fear they will be embarrassed by their lack of know-ledge,” Shanks said. “These gatherings offer a safe place for women who know a lot about Jewish texts, for those who are approaching Jewish tradition for the first time — and everyone in between.”

One of this year’s offerings is “Uppity Women: When Women Challenge the System.” In it, teacher and author Rachel Biale will lead a discussion of biblical and rabbinic texts that depict women going up against a male-centered social and legal system.

photo/magnes collection of jewish art and life, bancroft library, u.c. berkeley Temple Isaiah in Lafayette purchased the Planter’s Dock Polynesian restaurant in the 1950s

Another is “Girls Coming of Age,” which is expected to attract women with adolescent daughters.

In “G-dcast in Progress: Devorah,” participants will pair up in chevrutas to study and discuss the Book of Judges. G-dcast, a nonprofit that promotes Jewish learning with animated films, has a script in development featuring Devorah and Yael (two of the strongest female voices in Jewish text); two members of the G-dcast team, Allie Wollner and Barbara Barza, will read from it.

Some presenters have taken part in Kolot Nashim from the start, such as Biale, who founded and has served as director of Lehrhaus Judaica’s Bible by the Bay.

photo/courtesy of temple isaiah Temple Isaiah’s facilities

Participating for the first time are Naomi Seidman, director of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and Nitzhia Shaked, adjunct Jewish Studies professor at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. Other workshop leaders come from the Kevah Institute, Wilderness Torah and other synagogues.

A diversity of background can mean a diversity of opinion. But if sparks fly, “it ends up stretching and strengthening the conversation,” Rosenthal said.

Last year’s lineup included “Back into the Coffin,” a talk about Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who in 70 B.C.E. faked his death and was smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin, emerging to successfully negotiate with the Roman emperor for a place where Jews could study Torah in peace.

Said Kaufman, “It packed them in.”

Kolot Nashim, 7 to 9:30 p.m. April 30 Temple Beth Abraham, 327 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland. (510) 832-0936 or on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/IRbqy3.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.