I am Jewish and a feminist; our tradition’s text often feels at odds with my thinking. How can I read the Torah as supporting feminism?
I am also a Jewish feminist and I have, at times, found the text at odds with my thinking. I have also found the text to be a sacred story that inspires me, a source of moral guidance, and a description of life as I live it.
Over many years I have read Torah in a variety of settings using multiple commentaries and perspectives. Rarely do I, or most of the liberal Jews I know, read Torah as a literal text. From its earliest time, Torah has demanded interpretation. In fact, the word drash, the Hebrew word for interpretation, means to demand, to ask, to search.
Rabbinic Judaism was built on the necessity of finding meaning beyond the literal text. Jewish tradition describes four different ways to learn the meaning of Torah: peshat, drash, remez and sod. Peshat refers to the simplest, most obvious meaning of the text. Sometimes the text is disturbing. We begin with peshat as a framework for adding layers of meaning. For example, before we can ask, “Why did Cain kill Abel,” we need to look carefully at the text, where we will discover an opening. “And Cain said to his brother Abel…and when they were in the field Cain rose up and killed his brother Abel” (Genesis 4:8). That space in the Torah has been filled by commentators who not only asked, “Why did Cain kill Abel,” but why do human beings murder each other and why is there war?
Drash, remez and sod are different layers for asking and answering questions of the text, whether reading the Torah using our imagination, moral lessons, metaphor or mystical allusions.
Many congregations offer Torah study groups or classes to share the wisdom of Jewish commentators. In our congregation, the Torah study group is enriched by the life experience of every person sitting around the table. Here are a few ways that a feminist can approach and even appreciate Torah:
1. Wrestling with difficult texts
For many years, I attended havurot, study groups led by the members. Each week, a different individual would offer the drash. Often someone would begin their talk by saying, “I have a problem with this portion.” Though they would begin there, through the act of raising questions and offering alternative solutions, we could advance a different point of view. Rather than ignore these texts, argue with them! This is a tradition as old as Abraham arguing with God.
2. Lifting up the women and their stories
The more I read Torah, the more I discover gems that I didn’t learn in Hebrew school. Jewish feminists have uncovered the names and stories of women who serve as positive role models. For example, when we read the text closely, we find that Miriam’s leadership is different from her brother Moses, and yet she is celebrated and honored in the Torah and in midrash. The most fascinating woman I know in the Torah is the mysterious Serach bat Asher, a wise crone who the rabbis claim was responsible for the Exodus from Egypt.
3. Probing the historical context and literary analysis
The Torah came to us from a particular time and place. Women played different roles in the ancient Near Eastern culture than today. Feminist biblical scholars have uncovered matriarchal structures in Torah that are worth exploring. Literary analysis helps unpack the symbolism and structures that weave through the stories. For example, scholar Robert Alter demonstrates that the story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38) provides a commentary on the Joseph story in which Tamar is respected for being empowered and deceiving her father-in-law, Judah.
Any sacred text is both a product of its time and a source of timeless wisdom. The key is to find yourself within it, whether navigating its challenging passages, drinking in its words of hope, or plumbing the depths of its eternal truths. Find a teacher! I believe that by engaging in the 2,000-year-old tradition of interpretation, each of us can find our own truth within the words of Torah.
*Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Rabbi Barbara Penzner leads Torah study and serves as spiritual leader of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, a Reconstructionist synagogue in West Roxbury. She has been a feminist for 35 years and a rabbi for 27.
For more on Judaism and feminism, check out the Jewish Women’s Archive.