Creating a regendered Torah

Creating a regendered Torah

New Jersey singer takes video cue from N.Y. artist’s ‘Toratah’ text

Shlomit Levi, left, and Yael Kanarek
Shlomit Levi, left, and Yael Kanarek

In the Hebrew, the second word of the Torah gives the game away.

The English renders “Bereshit bara Elohim” as “In the beginning God created,” but in Hebrew, the second word, bara, created, is in the masculine gender. For some readers, that makes all the difference.

But what if the Torah didn’t assume a male creator?

What if, in fact, you were to reverse all the Torah’s genders — so that God, gendered female by her name and the genders of her verbs, creates Eve, and then forms Adam from her rib?

This is the project that New York artist Yael Kanarek embarked on back in 2016. Her work of regendering the Tanakh now has reached the Book of Samuel — in this version, the Book of Samuela. She calls it Toratah — “her Torah”— and sometimes will refer to the original Torah as Torato, “his Torah.” She has brought on editors to help her with the regendering and the accompanying translation into English and has launched an online community at that features a weekly Shabbat afternoon service featuring a regendered reading of the week’s Torah portion.

Recently, a spark from this project crossed the Hudson. Shlomit Levi, an Israeli singer and composer of Yemenite origin who lives in Cresskill, recorded a song based on the Toratah text and released an accompanying video. “Genesis” features the Hebrew and English of the first three verses from Ms. Kanarek’s version of the Torah, starting with, “In the beginning She created the heaven and the earth.”

Ms. Levi first heard about Ms. Kanarek’s project from a newspaper article a couple years ago. A week after that, she happened to meet her at a Shabbat dinner. The two clicked.

“We stayed in contact,” Ms. Levi said. “She sent me some texts and asked me to record them.

“While I was going over the text one evening, suddenly the music came to me. I recorded the whole thing to my phone from beginning to end. I felt like I was downloading it and not creating it — that never happened to me before.”

Ms. Levi’s longtime collaborator, Bruce Burger, who records as Rebbe Soul, worked with her on producing the song. “He created this beautiful production that matched what I had in mind, and took it one step higher,” she said.

She recorded the song in both Hebrew and English before deciding to combine them. “It felt right to do them both together,” she said. “In Yemen when they wrote a song, they usually used two languages, or three.”

Video editor: Liki Tapuach

Ms. Levi said the new text changed her relationship to the Bible. As a child growing up in Israel, she went to an Orthodox school for first through fourth grades. “I was good at Torah studies, but something didn’t feel right,” she said. “I didn’t really like the text.”

Reading the regendered version, however, “Suddenly I felt connected to it. Suddenly every important and central character in the Bible is a woman, including God. You hear, ‘She’s almighty. She’s amazing. She got us out from Egypt.’

“Or you can read about Nocha and her three daughters who were on the ark and saved the world from the flood. It’s mind-blowing.”

Retold this way, the Torah becomes a story centered on strong women, with men only occasionally making appearances. That fits well with Ms. Levi’s understanding of the world.

“I don’t see women as the weak ones who are just the side thing,” she said. “I grew up with very strong women in my heritage. My grandmother walked for months in Yemen with her three kids to bring them to Israel. She didn’t have a husband. They were attacked by bandits and got stripped from all their belongings. It was a 230-mile journey. Most of it was on donkeys. They walked only at night. They had to go through steep mountains.

“She did extraordinary things. She lived to be 100.”

Genesis 2 from Toratah, written on parchment by Torah scribe Julie Seltzer.

In creating a video to go with the song, Ms. Levi found collaborators nearby. She began with Nitsan Tal of Alpine, who made the award-winning film “8000 Paperclips,” about a group of African refugee children who had made their way to Israel before being returned to South Sudan. Dancer Yael Saban of Demarest was another collaborator.

“It was an interesting process. What would it look like or feel like when there is an almighty she? When you’re talking about a woman God, a female God?” Ms. Levi said.

“When you say God and he’s male, you have movies about how a God looks like,” she continued. “Maybe he’s almighty and has a white beard and is very old and he’s up there in the sky. Or maybe he’s a vagabond. Maybe he’s Morgan Freeman.

“But when you have to imagine a female God, it’s not just what she looks like. It’s what she does and how she behaves. Does she behave like a normal woman? Does she have power? Can she do magic? Does she have a lot of anger and a flood coming on?

“It was so hard to envision it.

“I want this idea to get to as many minds and hearts of people, because it challenges your thinking,” Ms. Levi continued. “Women can understand new things about themselves and where they want to go.

“We were all brought up in a certain way and this text is rebelling against it. That’s why I like it. We are going to have artworks around this, based on the inspiration from this song and from Toratah, musical and visual.”

Yael Kanarek said that in a sense, her Toratah project is an outgrowth of 10 years of studies with a well-known Israeli kabbalist, whose name she would rather not mention, to avoid attracting unwanted attraction from his more orthodox followers. “At some point I reached an impasse,” she said. “The rabbi I studied with said he didn’t know how to teach women. The kabbalah is such an inner process. I realized I didn’t have a teacher. I realized I didn’t have any books that tell me something about the divine from a women’s experience. I didn’t have any books that use women’s living experiences and codifies it into the sacred.”

So she reached into her artist’s bag of tricks. “I grew up in the tradition of contemporary art,” she said. “We approach things through a process of critique and analysis and deconstruction and rebuilding. Taking something obvious and turning it on its head and looking at it from another direction. If you want to build a blender, you’ll get a blender you like and take it apart and rebuild it to understand how it’s made.”

So she decided to try this with a text, and that led her to Genesis.

“That’s the point of departure, where the worldview is informed and created,” she said. “I went to that verse where Elohim” — God — “makes Adam in his likeness and image; male and female he created them.

“So I went there and wrote, ‘Elohin created Eve in her likeness, female and male she created them.’”

And then she stepped back and reviewed the text she had created.

“Two things happened for me,” Ms. Kanarek said.

“First, I could sense the text at volume ten where before it was at volume two. Suddenly I could experience the magnitude of what was written.

“Second, I realized, wow, this is how agency works. When you align with an entity you describe as all powerful, all present, the maximum of any quality you can think of — that’s a huge psychological support. I never had that before. I was never in the story. I never even had that concept, that it’s something to even have.

“The female characters in the Torah are defined through a particular desire that she will have boys, that she will give whatever support is necessary for a man to have that growing relationship with Elohim.

“Genesis 2: From Her Rib She Made a Man,” an art print by Yael Kanarek. The Toratah text of Genesis 2 in Hebrew and English is in black; the pink text is a placeholder for yet-unwritten commentary.

“Once I reversed that, all the divine influence is coming through the mother-daughter lineage. Now the man’s role is supporting that relationship. That’s a completely different worldview.

“Toratah brings men much closer to the familial side. Now the prize child is a daughter. Their status in the household is defined by having daughters. We want these men. We need to cultivate them.”

Ms. Kanarek said that “as women, we’re always translating the Torah in our heads and making room for ourselves in the story. So bnei Yisrael” — literally, the sons of Israel, often translated as Israelites — “oh, that means us too. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. And actually I would argue that in most cases, unless it’s specifically referencing women, the default is that it doesn’t.”

In her retelling, “bnei Yisrael becomes the daughters of Tisraela. It’s not the Israelites. We’ve been making it as gendered as possible,” she said, “we” here referring to her and her collaborators.

“The regendering of God is actually in a way easy,” she continued. “It’s sort of been done in the past. We have prayer books from 15th century Venice where the verb after Elohim is feminine. There’s been a history of that. God is not the problem. God is an abstraction.”

Wait a second. Why “Elohin” and not, say, “Elohot,” which would be the obvious female form of the Hebrew word “Elohim”?

Ms. Kanarek’s answer reflects her years of kabbalah studies. It was based on how the Tikunei Zohar explains the word “Elohim” — translated as God, but grammatically a plural word — as being the two words “elu hem,” meaning “these are they.” For the kabbalah, this speaks, Ms. Kanarek said, “to the rise of differentiation. This differentiation manifests as multiplication and expansion, which I wanted to retain.” Accordingly, she swapped the male plural of “hem” to the female plural of “hen,” and ended up with “Elohin” as a name of the regendered God.

“We use ‘Elohot’ in cases in the text that refer to other goddesses,” she said. “I can’t tell you that this will not change in time. Toratah is not sealed. It just opened.”

Ms. Kanarak not only regenders God and people; she also regenders places and even animals. “If the kohenet hagedola” — the high priestess — “sacrifices a cow, it’s different than if she sacrifices a bull,” she said.

Even though Ms. Kanarek is regendering the Torah rather than degendering it, she doesn’t believe men and women are opposites. “We are slightly different creatures,” she said. “We move in the world differently. It’s not opposites.

“All the people over all the years who worked on these books did a great job. Now let’s open other dimensions of the story. It’s kind of crazy to me that women are now coming into the public sphere, but when they go to pray, they go to pray to the male mind. It’s kind of a spiritual gender dysphoria. It’s the man’s desire projected into language. It’s great that it’s there, but it’s not quite the right desire for me.”

Not that the original is going away.

“I have no concern of any kind that Torato” — the original, masculine Torah — “is going to disappear and that halacha is going to disappear. This is a tiny little corner of the world that is doing everything from a female point of view, and being in this is really, really amazing. It feels like pure Torah.”

Creating Toratah, regendering the Torah, is only the first step, Ms. Kanarek said.

“Once that mind starts to develop, the mind that thinks from a perspective of the feminine divine, then I can start doing a lot of really interesting things. Once you have two, they can mate. When you have the feminine language fully formed in the holy, when you have all the psychospiritual relationships, you can put it all together. You get a much more complete Torah,” she said.

And it foreshadows more sacred texts that center the experiences of women.

“It became really clear to me that kabbalah is written from a man’s point of view,” Ms. Kanarek said. “Another kabbalah needs to be written that works with the woman’s body to fully explore everything there is to explore in terms of receiving the pleasures of the divine and being able to bestow it. This is really a long-term process. It might be past my lifetime.”

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