Sisterhood Blog

Men's Torah Commentary 'Steals the Spotlight'

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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It hasn’t been long — just the last dozen years in human time, but a blink of an eye in the long arc of Torah interpretation — that women have published scholarly commentaries on the Jewish Bible.

Now there’s a new book in response, “The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary”, edited by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin and published by Jewish Lights.

Rabbi Salkin has put together a book of Torah interpretations, one weekly Torah portion at a time, by rabbis from Modern Orthodox to Reform and Reconstructionist, but also by singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman and PresenTense’s founder Ariel Beery.

The Atlanta-based Rabbi Salkin gives a nod toward Jewish feminist scholarship, and writes in the introduction that feminism has pointed out that we see the world through a gendered lens. He also writes, “The great, often unspoken crisis facing modern liberal Judaism is the disengagement of its men.”

There is, to be sure, a serious problem of disengagement among young men in liberal synagogues, but Rabbi Salkin overstates it. Thoughtful analysts are more likely to say that the great crisis facing modern liberal Judaism is overall illiteracy and indifference.

The very idea of a book of men’s Torah commentary rankles some leading Jewish feminists.

“Obviously every Torah commentary until the present day has been a men’s Torah commentary,” says Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, who developed and edited the book on which Rabbi Salkin’s is modeled, “The Women’s Torah Commentary.”

It was published in 2000. Since both books share a publisher, Goldstein declined to speak specifically about the new book, but did address larger issues.

“Until women’s commentaries were being written, nobody noticed that they were all from men’s perspectives. My whole Jewish education was spent reading and hearing men’s commentaries,” says Goldstein, who is on sabbatical from her current role as director of Kolel, a center for adult Jewish learning in Toronto. “It’s an interesting reaction. I find it slightly amusing that nobody understands that Rashi’s is a men’s commentary.”

Feminist path-breaker Letty Cottin Pogrebin put a finer point on it. “That this new book is being published with such a title is not just a transparent marketing ploy but, unfortunately, conforms to previous responses to women’s advancement or visibility in other fields,” said Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine:

I call this response ‘The Stolen Spotlight Syndrome’ and it works like this: As soon as massive public attention is directed to women’s problems, efforts, opinions, condition, status, or suffering, men yank the spotlight back to themselves with a kind of ‘us too!’ response.

It happened when feminists managed to raise public consciousness about the struggles of single mothers. What was the first major cultural expression of this issue? ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ — the story of a single father’s struggles! Likewise, when feminists succeeded in surfacing the issue of sexual harassment, the first major cultural expression of that problem was David Mamet’s play “Oleanna,” the story of a male professor being harassed by a female student.

Now that we finally have women’s voices weighing in on Torah with powerful, fresh interpretations, men are yanking the spotlight back in this modern guise of tit-for-tat — a men’s commentary. To me, it’s a cynical effort to neutralize the emergence of women as rightful interpreters of text.

The idea of breaking out scholarship from a male point of view in an overtly gendered way is so new that even Google hasn’t caught up. When you Google the new book, the search engine asks “Did you mean “The Modern Women’s Torah Commentary?”

Sarah B. Tue. Jul 14, 2009

The only thing that would make a specifically men's commentary *not* reactionary would be if it uses a feminist analysis to look at how men have also been affected by the historically gendered slant of Jewish texts. In other words, how do men read Torah now that they are conscious of our texts as men's texts, rather than thinking of these texts as gender neutral or universal.

Dan Thu. Jul 16, 2009

I think this commentary is a great idea.

Non-orthodox Judaism has become egalitarian, and that's good. Anything a man can do, a woman can also do (having an aliyah, becoming a rabbi or cantor, being counted in a minyan, reading Torah, etc.). A modern non-orthodox synagogue would never dream of organizing a service or learning program for men and boys only. It wouldn't be acceptable. Furthermore, if there is a men/boys only activity, it is expected that there will also be a women/girls activity. We must stop and think for a minute for a moment, though, about something that many non-orthodox synagogues are doing today. I'm referring to Rosh Chodesh programs (it's a girl thing!) and women's seders (women and girls only!). When synagogues have these kinds of programs, what kind of message are they sending to the boys? Are the boys not important? I have never seen any kind of similar programs for men and boys. Perhaps there should be, but if they existed, would they be accepted or would they be subjected to criticism?

In the same ways, Rabbi Goldstein and Letty Cottin Pogrebin completely misunderstand the situation. They are saying to the young men of today (many of whom, sadly, are drifting far from Judaism), "Your sexist male ancestors wrote sexist commentaries. We're writing a new Torah commentary from a women's point of view for us women. Deal with it! A commentary for you? Of all the nerve! Go study those old sexist texts by your sexist ancestors and don't even think of writing a commentary that speaks to today's man! We can say, with authority, that you don't need it!"

It's great that there's a modern women's Torah commentary. Please notice that I added the word modern. If it brings today's women and girls closer to Torah, fantastic! Why not one for men too? What's wrong with trying to bring today's men and boys closer to Torah? I think it's safe to say that most of today's non-Orthodox men and boys don't spend much time studying the old "sexist" male commentators like Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Nachmanides anyway.

We need to do whatever it takes to make today's non-Orthodox Jews, male and female, more literate in Jewish texts. We need to do whatever it takes to increase Torah knowledge. Perhaps some men will read the women's commentary and find that they agree with parts of it and disagree with other parts. Perhaps women will read the men's commentary and do the same thing. What's wrong with this? Absolutely nothing! Perhaps it will encourage some serious thinking and good healthy discussion. As far as I'm concerned, this is a fantastic idea!

I would like to point out to Pogrebin that women should be thrilled that men copied their idea. Remember the old saying about imitation being a sincere form of flattery? Bringing up "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Oleanna" really don't apply to this discussion at all.

Dan Thu. Jul 16, 2009

I don't own either book, but I was curious and decided to see what I could find in Google Books. At this site, you can read portions of both commentaries.

After I read portions of both, I felt quite sad when I thought about Goldstein's and Cottin-Pogrebin's comments. Why? Because both books are great! I'm serious--if you can afford both, please buy both! As a man, I read a portion of the women's commentary and found it quite interesting. I think other men will as well. Some might expect the men's commentary to be a heavy-handed ultra-masculine text that puts down women and tries to point out the superiority of men over women. Nothing could be further from the truth! If anything, I think this book tries to help men be better and more loving husbands and fathers (although you won't find this on every page).

I honestly feel that women will enjoy the men's book. As I said, it never has a heavy-handed ultra-masculine tone, and it is not heavy reading. There are a lot of nice anecdotes that both men and women will enjoy. For example, there is Ari Goldman's article, "Not Just for the Birds," (Parshat Beshalach) in which he shares his personal story about how his great-aunts would take him (when he was a young boy) out to Riverside Park to feed kasha to the birds.

Please, let's get beyond this silly "you men are copycats" attitude. Please buy both books, learn from them, and enjoy them!

Esther Kustanowitz Sun. Jul 19, 2009

A recent trip to Barnes and Noble revealed that for non-Jewish readers of the Bible, there are myriad versions to choose from, and I found myself wondering what might have happened to my personal theology and belief about the text if I'd been given a Bible (alongside the traditional text, not instead of it) that really took women's perspectives into account. So I think it's great that there's a women's Torah commentary. That there's a men's Torah commentary? A bit redundant perhaps, after centuries of men's commentaries, but terrific. That women's voices and men's voices are given equal weight as commentators in innovative initiatives like Phenomenal. More commentaries are better than fewer, if you ask me - it shows that there's more than one way to read a text, and that so much of interpretation is bound up in individual perspectives.

Perhaps the next version should be havruta-style commentary where men and women team up to provide two streams of commentary in an integrated chapter, to illustrate that we can all learn with and from each other. We could call it "Men Learn on Mars, Women Learn on Venus," or something like that.

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