It’s new, but it’s old. That is The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (URJ, cloth, $75). Cantor Sarah Sager of Beachwood, Ohio, first voiced the idea for this book at a meeting in 1992. Now, more than 100 rabbis, cantors, theologians, historians, poets and scholars have taken a fresh look, a women’s look, at Torah.
Along with the usual Hebrew and English text and notes on each page, A Woman’s Commentary begins each weekly portion with an outline and ends with more extensive explorations, articles and poems.
Rabbi Beth Singer of Seattle’s Temple Beth Am says she has been “besieged” by requests from members to lead study groups with this new commentary.
“I’m actually very impressed by what I see,” she says. “I was initially hesitant to slightly negative on [the idea of] a separate women’s commentary. It sounded artificial to me.” But now that she has had the time to examine the text, she finds it in keeping with a long Jewish tradition of different scholarly voices.
“I was ultimately impressed by the scholarship,” she says, and by the inclusion of poetry, “a very creative form of commentary.”
A good companion to this new commentary is How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now, by James L. Kugel (Free Press, cloth $35). Weighing in at about five pounds, these books together have a big intellectual and physical heft. The Harvard University professor emeritus reconciles modern scholarship and traditional interpretation to show that it is possible to be both a true believer and to appreciate Biblical scholarship. The book is meant to be accessible to both scholars and lay readers.
Kugel is an Orthodox Jew, something many readers and other scholars find intriguing, even perplexing. He’s nice enough to answer questions on his Web site: www.jameskugel.com.
Who’s Who In the Jewish Bible by David Mandel (JPS, paper, $30), is an exciting addition to any Jewish library. A comprehensive reference for serious scholars and students of all ages, it’s also entertaining reading, and could be a baby-naming book. From Aaron to Zurishaddai in 3,000 entries, Mandel relies only on the Bible (Tanach) as his source. “It is based on a literal reading of the text and treats that text as a historical document.”
If you like your Torah well-parsed, you will enjoy The Beast That Crouches At the Door, by Rabbi David Fohrman (Devora, cloth, $24.95), which focuses all 216 of its pages on chapters two through four of Bereshit (Genesis). From Adam and Eve and the serpent through the repercussions of Cain’s murder of Abel, Fohrman draws some interesting conclusions. In addition to teaching in the U.S. and Israel, the author is an editor of the Artscroll (Schottenstein) Talmud.
More samples of recent Biblical scholarship can be found in The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship, edited by Frederick E. Greenspahn (NYU, cloth, $55; paper, $20). These nine essays approach Torah from archeological, literary and theological perspectives. The editor, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, says, “there has been a veritable revolution, and possibly more than one, in Biblical studies over the past generation.” He proposes to “share these conversations, which have been going on in academic circles for decades, with a larger audience.”
The poet and critic Alicia Suskin Ostriker brings a poetic approach to Biblical exegesis in For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book (Rutgers, cloth, $22.95). Author of The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions, The Volcano Sequence (poems), Ostriker is published in many anthologies and journals. Now she explores “some of the most unconventional and outrageous portions” of the Bible, including Song of Songs, Ruth, Psalms and Ecclesiates. Ostriker is interested in the feminine aspect of God (Shechina), and says, “I do believe that the Bible asks to be taken both personally and analytically. If not taken personally, it becomes meaningless; if not taken analytically, it becomes dogma.”
Finally, a book that is not about Torah, but may change your perspective on Torah — Tanach, really—and how it relates to Jewish history. Jon Entine’s Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People (Grand Central, cloth, $27.99) is a fascinating exploration of the human genome and what our DNA says about our Jewish heritage. Entine’s interest in the subject began with a family medical crisis, but soon branched out into other areas. He is not afraid of controversial subjects, such as the Jewish “smart” gene, and historic links between Jewish populations around the world. Do your genes make you Jewish? What if you are Father William Sanchez, a Catholic priest in Albuquerque?
Ultimately, Entine tackles the politically incorrect bugaboo of race. What is race, a term Americans try so hard not to use? (I, for one, am tired of being asked if my “ethnicity” is “Caucasian.”) How are these racial differences reflected in our genes? Rather than try to say one is better than another, Entine suggests that we embrace the wonderful diversity that is humanity. And guess what? Ashkenazi Jews and Palestinians are pretty closely related, so Entine strongly suggests we all ought to try to get along better.