Does being a woman influence your understanding of Torah and the way you incorporate its teachings into your life?
On March 13, four Jewish educators, three of them rabbis, all women, will explore these and similar questions in a symposium at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley.
The four are linked not only by the primacy of Jewish teachings in their work but also by their connection to the Woodcliff Lake synagogue. Rabbi Loren Monosov is its religious leader, Rabbi Shelley Kniaz is its director of congregational education, Rabbi Leana Moritt is the founder and rabbinic director of Thresholds and has conducted many keruv activities at the shul, and veteran Jewish educator Miriam Gray spent many years furthering Jewish education at Temple Emanuel.
The four will come together in a program conceived by Alayne Pick, chair of the shul’s Keruv Committee for Community Engagement and one of the chairs of its continuing education committee. It will be based on a book “that really spoke to Alayne,” Rabbi Monosov said.
The book, “Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives,” edited by Sue Levi Ewell and Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, is made up of 20 essays, each written by a different female rabbi or Torah scholar who shares a personal story about how Torah teachings helped her at a particular time. The authors write about being daughters, mothers, sisters, partners, lovers, and friends. They share their experiences of parenting, infertility, and abortion. One describes accompanying her young husband through his life-threatening illness. Another tells of her daughter’s struggle with an eating disorder. Still another reflects on long decline of a parent with Alzheimer’s.
At the March 13 program, the four panelists will also share “how we personally connected [Torah] to a piece of our lives,” Rabbi Monosov said. “We will each create a chapter of our own, teaching a text and weaving it into our lives.” Each panelist will choose a teaching particularly meaningful to her. “Our goal is to allow people to see the relevancy of Torah to our lives,” she continued. “It’s not a document meant to be just looked at and studied, but it has meaning for everyday experiences.”
“Often, in retrospect, I will understand passages of Torah based on specific life experiences,” Ms. Gray, the educator, said. “We are all Sara making difficult decisions, leaving the familiar and forging out to a new life, just as we all understand the frustrations of Rachel, the insecurity of Leah, the motherly instincts of Jochebed. On a daily basis, personally, recalling the crossing of the Red Sea constantly comforts me. When I was mature enough to understand that it is a paradigm for salvation and for redemption, it became the image that helped me through difficult times. I find it one of the most comforting biblical images.
“Regardless of how tough times may be, we will get through and make it to the other side. It may be difficult, we may struggle, but just as the Israelites made it to the other side, we can also work through our struggles. Perhaps that is the reason we recite Moshe’s Song each morning as we begin our day. We will make it through!”
“Our Torah is a Torah of chesed — lovingkindness — and I strive to act on its teachings every day,” Rabbi Kniaz said. “The rabbis point out that Torah begins and ends with chesed, acts of lovingkindness; at the beginning, God clothes Adam and Eve, and at the end God buries Moshe, an act of kindness that is both final and cannot be reciprocated. Ethical mitzvot from the Torah can infuse every thought and action.
“We learn to visit the sick when we read about God visiting Abraham. We learn not to gossip from the negative example of Aaron and Miriam criticizing Moshe. Applying these teachings take constant practice. They start out as conscious efforts but can become habits, as natural as breathing. I try to live by the lessons I learn from the Torah.”
Is this kind of sharing something only women can do? Rabbi Monosov said she had trouble envisioning a male panel with a similar program. “Women add a different piece to the rabbinate and to Judaism,” she said. Still, Ms. Gray noted, “Of course men would find such a discussion meaningful, especially since each individual reads Torah with a different eye.
“Men, women, children all see the Torah through different eyes,” she continued. “When we read the Torah, women do not only see themselves in the actions of the women of the Torah, we also see ourselves in the struggles of Moshe, the frustrations of Jacob, the goals of Joseph. And so, men can also identify with the relationships of Sara, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel.”
“The value of lived experience in understanding the world — phenomenology and qualitative analysis — has been both brought to the fore by women and is historically the primary way to learn about life through a woman’s eyes,” Rabbi Kniaz said. “It is considered a particularly important way to understand those who are in the minority and are oppressed. Yet the application of lived experience to what we know and do has had a greater impact than most of us know.
“For example, an understanding of subjective experience is fortunately now considered essential in medical care. However, the role of women in this approach does not mean that men do not or cannot engage in this type of study. To the contrary. That is one of the benefits of diversity; we can learn from one another. I think that is one of the reasons that we bless God for making people different.”
Ms. Gray said her goal “is that we will, through our discussion, encourage the reader/student, to find him/herself in the text of the Torah. The vicissitudes of our ancestors are akin to ours, regardless of the passage of time. We learn from the Torah that human nature and mankind’s frailties are not centered in one time and place. We are there in the text waiting to be uncovered.
“Often — by relating to the passions, challenges, and relationships of our ancestors — we can find insights helpful to us in our lives. The Torah is relevant to us; are we relevant to the Torah?”
Rabbi Moritt, noting that “women’s voices have not always been front and center in terms of exegetical or interpretive narrative in the Jewish world,” pointed to the importance of “Chapters,” “which illustrates what women take from and bring to Torah. Now we not only have a book celebrating and illustrating that, we have three rabbis and a teacher” expanding on it.
“The study of Torah is intellectually stimulating,” Rabbi Kniaz added. “It can also help make us better people. In addition, both Torah study and the fulfillment of ritual and ethical mitzvot are the cornerstones of our community — and being a part of a community enhances our joyous occasions, helps us in difficult times, and enriches all the moments in-between.
“In my life, I have both been a beneficiary of this and strive to bring this benefit to others.”
“While Torah can have an impact on our lives, our lives also help us understand Torah,” she concluded. “I hope that attendees will see that we don’t have to be scholars to study Torah. We bring ourselves and our lived experience to the table when we study.”
Who: Rabbis Loren Monosov, Shelley Kniaz, and Leana Moritt, and Jewish educator Miriam Gray
What: Will participate in a symposium on “Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives”
When: On Monday, March 13, following minyan at 7:30 p.m.
Where: At Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, 87 Overlook Road, Woodcliff Lake
Cost: Free and open to the public but RSVP requested to Alayne Pick at firstname.lastname@example.org or the synagogue office, (201) 391-0801.