Leading Torah Study: Framing the Message

Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt
Originally posted here on RavBlog 

 
What does it mean to lead a Torah study?  When we sit with congregants, friends, are guests in different communities, what is it we are doing when we are given the honor to lead a Torah study?  There is something quite amazing that we are doing – we are framing the message for this group. For that short moment in time that we are asked to lead, we are transmitting a concept, idea, ideal or moral teaching that we believe the group needs to hear.  It is a truly powerful moment and the texts, commentaries, works that we bring to the table also convey the message of what our values are or what sources contribute to our very own understanding of the week’s parashah.  For the Torah studies that I lead, I am indebted to a rabbi and teacher who taught me the important lens of gender to bring forth powerful lessons, messages and teachings.

In the Fall of 2011, I found myself sitting in the classroom of Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss.  Within the first ten minutes of her class, I quickly discovered that all I thought that I had learned, all that I thought that I knew about Torah, it was as if I was viewing only half a painting.  I was studying and teaching about an incomplete picture.  From that point on, Dr. Weiss challenged us to try to step back and expand the lenses through which we viewed Torah.  That is, to also use the lens of a woman’s view when studying and teaching Torah.

It is not an easy thing to find one’s understanding of Torah to be so challenged.  Or more simply put, to be told that I had been missing so much in my studies up until that moment.  But in that challenge, I found that it freed me to be willing to engage with our sacred texts in a way that I never had – to appreciate Torah for all of its voices and to see the beauty in the rainbow of Torah interpretation.  And where do we turn to begin this discussion?  For me, it has been and continues to be the WRJ’s The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.

WTC - Jewish Book Award - Updated

In the early pages of this work, Drs. Tamara Eskenazi and Andrew Weiss write “In reproducing the variety of Torah interpretations, past and present, we envision our readers joining the centuries-old dialogue through their own personal and communal study.  We hope that The Torah: A Women’s Commentary will inspire and invigorate a lifelong exploration that will go beyond these pages and will shape women and men in our communities well into the future.  In this way, all of us will rightly pay tribute, at last, to the Torah of our mothers and fathers.”

I believe these words to be an important and perhaps even sacred charge for the Torah that I teach and the message that I pass on week to week.  What does this charge practically look like?  For me, it means beginning my Torah studies with the outline that can be found before every parashah in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.  And what happens when I begin the sacred conversation with this outline? Often times, I’ll find a comment or two during, but especially after the formal teaching, where someone will share how they’ve never thought of looking at Torah in this way.  Other times, someone will tell me how the study helped them come to the realization that they’ve never looked at how the generations of commentaries before the last few decades almost all are devoid of a woman’s voice!

womens commentary

To study Torah in this way slowly began to permeate the other ways in which I have come to understand Judaism and its rituals.  Because of this eye-opening experience, I have been spurred to begin exploring other parts of our tradition for the voices of not only women, but those other silenced minority voices.  I believe that in that class nearly five years ago, Dr. Weiss gave me a gift whose reward benefits not only me, but all who I am grateful to study Torah with during my rabbinate.  The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a work that causes us to ask difficult questions, to look at our Torah in new and exciting ways, and continues the important work of giving voice to all within klal Yisrael.