The holiday of Purim, whose observance centers around the public chanting of the Book of Esther, is a yearly opportunity to reflect on women in the Jewish textual tradition, and women’s relationship to it. A woman, after all, has top billing as one of two heroes of the story, a true rarity within the Bible. With courage and humility, Esther skillfully maneuvers of the nuances of her socio-political context to save her people. The story is riveting and her role in it is prominent. The only thing that tempers the satisfaction of celebrating Esther’s victory with her is that the centrality and power of her role stands in such sharp contrast to the rest of the Bible.
This year, I am struck by another group of women who also courageously maneuver their social context for the benefit of their people. I’m speaking of the women teachers of Jewish sacred texts. I noticed an astonishing fact: The solid majority of those who have taught me Jewish texts have been women. This is remarkable on several levels. First, until very recently, women – with only a few exceptions – were not allowed to study the Jewish sacred canon at all, much less teach it. At the same time, in many parts of the Jewish world, men’s study was the most highly regarded activity, one that some men engaged in extensively, or even full time. Not only were women deprived of access to this central aspect of Jewish intellectual and spiritual expression, but all of us have been deprived of millennia of women’s contributions to the otherwise rich inter-generational conversation of textual interpretation and reinterpretation, preservation and innovation, which is in many ways the cornerstone of Judaism. Women from nearly every stream of Judaism – Reconstructionist, Renewal, Reform, Modern Orthodox, Conservative – with academic, yeshivah, and/or rabbinic training, queer and straight, have taught me, testifying to the extent to which this recent trend has spread throughout the Jewish world. Secondly, it is amazing not only that there are so many women teaching text today, but that I, as a Jewish man, have been taught by them and benefitted from their skill, dedication, and insights. It is a radical undermining of so many generations of patriarchy, and yet it has seemed so natural – and been so beneficial to my intellectual and spiritual growth – that I can scarcely believe it was not always commonplace.
But it is not just the fact of women teaching – and teaching men like me – that is worthy of acknowledgement and celebration. Even more important is the fact that the texts frequently push women away – often harshly – yet they continue to engage with them and teach them. My female teachers have modelled a variety of approaches to the difficult texts, including reinterpretation, critique, midrash, and historical contextualization, though never apologetics. Whatever the approach, however, the attitude that has come across throughout my experiences learning texts from women has been a commitment to stay in the conversation and to lovingly struggle with the texts.
Their commitment benefits more than just women. The reality is that portions and aspects of the texts marginalize or push away most of us in one way or another: women, LGBTQ people, members of interfaith families, people with disabilities, Jews by choice, and others. And anyone with values informed by secular and Jewish thought from modernity to the present will find some texts off-putting. My female teachers of Jewish texts have taught me that it is both possible and rewarding to stay involved with our textual tradition despite the difficulties. They have rescued the texts for all of us by showing us how to remain fully engaged in the millennia-old textual conversation while holding both the pain the text can sometimes cause us, and our love for it. Their non-apologetic approach allows us to bring our full selves face-to-face with the text. If I had not been taught by so many women who I knew were in the conversation despite so often being made unwelcome, I would likely have given up long ago. I owe my path towards the rabbinate in no small part to them.
Viewed against the backdrop of history, the sheer numbers of women studying and teaching Jewish sacred text at this moment in time stands out as much as Esther’s central role does against the canvass of the Bible as a whole. Yet, just as the Jews of the story of the Book of Esther benefitted from Esther’s courage and we join them in celebrating throughout the generations, the efforts of today’s women scholars of Jewish texts are a blessing to us all, and to generations to come.
Image: Esther and Mordecai writing the First Letter of Purim — Arent de Gelder, c. 1685