Covers of "ParshaNut" and "Dirshuni"

Unconventional Torah commentaries add valuable perspectives to the mix

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For those of us whose primary encounter with the text of the Torah is reading along in synagogue with the aid of English translations, we are missing a key dimension of traditional Jewish engagement with the sacred text.

The Torah has long been studied alongside commentaries that have enabled us to deepen our understanding — and two newly published books add some valuable perspectives to the mix.

Raised in Oakland, Rabbi David Kasher is known in the Bay Area for having co-founded Kevah, a project that helped bring the study of classical Jewish texts to many learners. A former J. Torah columnist and currently an associate rabbi at Ikar in Los Angeles, Kasher has recently published “ParshaNut,” a book recording his excursions in Torah study.

Rabbi David Kasher
Rabbi David Kasher

Kasher is an exuberant teacher who wants to bring us into the experience of reading the Torah through a multiplicity of perspectives. His companion is the “Mikraot Gedolot,” a marvel of early Hebrew printing, in which the Biblical text is surrounded on the page by commentaries from a wide variety of rabbis from the medieval and Renaissance eras, including those Kasher dubs the “Big Three” from the Middle Ages: Rashi, Ibn Ezra and the Ramban (Nachmanides). The “Mikraot Gedolot” reminds us that reading the Torah is a communal project across time — we don’t read these texts alone.

For each Torah portion, Kasher poses a question occasioned by something unresolved in the Biblical text and begins a conversation that may extend from the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud to those of Europe a millennium later. Looking for satisfying answers, he usually gets one. And in the process, we have the opportunity to experience the close reading, wordplay and imaginative invention of the interpreters.

There are also occasions when Kasher does not find an answer. Hoping to put himself at greater ease with a disturbing incident in Leviticus where a man is condemned to death by stoning for cursing God’s name, Kasher instead finds “no consolation.”

“ParshaNut” — the Hebrew word refers to the tradition of biblical interpretation, but is here also a pun referring to someone who is nutty about the weekly Torah portion — is not meant to be a systematic companion to the weekly reading. For me, rather, it is an opportunity to look over the shoulder of a brilliant seeker as he goes deep into the Jewish interpretive tradition. It succeeds in modeling the active encounter with text and assuring the reader that this sort of wrestling is exactly what the tradition is encouraging us to do. And the very fact that the rabbis are often in pronounced disagreement with one another is permission for us to bring our own eyes and voices to this endeavor.

These classic Torah commentators, whose words have spanned centuries and nations, happen to have one thing in common: They were all male. A corrective to this pattern, “Dirshuni” is a compilation of midrashic writings by Israeli women, edited by Jerusalem scholar and teacher Tamar Biala.

For this English edition, each short midrash is followed by a commentary explaining its context (including some of the Hebrew wordplay, which inevitably suffers in translation) and suggesting its meaning.

Tamar Kadari’s introduction sets the stage well, introducing the reader to the tradition of midrash — which she defines literally as “searching out and exploring sacred scripture” — and the extensive “tool kit” that midrashists use, working inventively with words and stories to address problems or gaps in the Biblical text. She also traces the resurgence of midrash as a contemporary practice, emerging initially in the United States in the 1970s as many Jewish feminists looked at their tradition anew. Israeli women’s adoption of the discipline was occasioned in part by the development of more opportunities for Modern Orthodox women in Israel to engage in intensive Talmudic study — something that had been the exclusive domain of men — and the translation of the Talmud from Aramaic to modern Hebrew, making the rabbinic tradition more accessible to those without a yeshiva education. And something that distinguishes Israelis’ midrash is a much more intimate relationship with the Hebrew language; the words used in the Bible are those used in their daily lives..

The result is powerful. As Kadari, a professor of midrash at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem,  tells it, “The phenomenon of women forging midrash is a kind of historical repair and recreates the revelation at Sinai anew, this time with women’s meaningful participation.”

I first encountered “Dirshuni” when Rabbi Dorothy Richman led a text study on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. She asked where Sarah was during the binding of Isaac. Among the sources she explored were two excerpts from “Dirshuni.” One of the explanations was haunting: Sarah’s silence during the episode “was her mistake. For the Holy Blessed One had told Abraham Whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her voice (Genesis 21:12), but He had not said those words to her.” Sarah could have stopped the incident from happening, but she was unaware of her power to do so.

Many of these writings give greater voice or agency to characters who are insufficiently developed in the Biblical text or not awarded sufficient interest by the rabbis. And quite a few address women’s oppression both within the stories and within the larger tradition.

As an example, in one story authored by Biala, a pious woman listening to the chanting of the Ten Commandments in the synagogue is desperately saddened by the realization that the gendered Hebrew formation of two of the commandments implies that they are given only to men. Her despair reaches the Holy One, who explains that this was a problem of transmission — of Moses incorrectly transcribing God’s word because his own sensibilities had been limited by ensconcing himself solely among men. And the Holy One adds, “Any beit midrash that has no women — My word will not emerge from there whole.”

Given that batei midrash (Jewish houses of study) have been an exclusively male domain, this poses an enormous challenge to Jewish tradition. But, although many of the contributors are themselves deeply observant Jews, this is not a collection that shies away from such challenges. I hope that the writings in this collection will be part of our conversation, and that we will be better able to “listen to her voice.”

“ParshaNut: 54 Journeys into the World of Torah Commentary” by David Kasher (Quid Pro Books, 318 pages)

“Dirshuni: Contemporary Women’s Midrash” edited by Tamar Biala (Brandeis University Press, 304 pages)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.