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Savina J. Teubal

Biblical Scholar and Ritual Innovator
1926 – 2005
by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

Savina Teubal was a daughter of the conflagration that expelled Jews from the Arab world. She grew up in Argentina in what she described as a "tight-knit" and sophisticated Syrian Jewish community that celebrated learning and the preservation of tradition—for sons. Savina became her own woman as she made her way to England and then to America, applying her natural understanding of the imperative of social activism and community building to create connections in her new home. In her thirties, she began to study, and claimed as her own the Biblical legacy of her people. Her ground-breaking work, Sarah the Priestess, (first published in 1984), was Savina's first gift to the world. Her reading of the Hebrew Bible's account of the first matriarch opened hearts and minds to the power of women's stories in shaping a collective consciousness. Savina entered the Biblical world and invited each of us to follow her. Her pioneering work opened the way to teachers, rabbis, and writers across the world to create midrash [interpretation] that would enable modern readers to reconsider the biblical narratives as living stories of real women and real choices. In 1990, her readers welcomed her second book, Hagar the Egyptian. Anita Diamant might never have imagined The Red Tent without Savina Teubal's work, and thousands who have returned to Judaism were beckoned by her recasting of ancient narratives that illuminate contemporary dilemmas.

Savina Teubal and Debbie Friedman at Teubal's "Simchat Hochmah" ceremony - still image [media]
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Savina Teubal and Debbie Friedman at Teubal's Simchat Hochmah ceremony, held at Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, November 1986.
Photo: Mary MacArthur.

Savina's contribution to Judaism was not limited to her books, articles, and her rich works of fiction. Harnessing the power of ritual, she boldly created a ceremony for becoming an elder. Her intention and keen understanding of the interconnections of time, space, language, and sacred objects enabled her to fashion her Simchat Hochmah ["Joy of Wisdom"], a ritual that marked the transition of an individual in the context of community that itself was transformed in the process. She was partnered by a composer, a poet, and rabbis who helped her to create a ceremony that became a model for "celebrations of wisdom" across the Jewish world. Savina chose Shabbat Lech Lecha [the Sabbath on which the Torah portion about Abraham's journey is read] for her "simcha," and as she ascended to the Torah for the first time in her life, she compared her own journey to that of Sarai and Avram as they went forth to a new and unknown future. After leading her congregation in prayer, in preparation for the Torah service, Savina donned a kittel, a traditional burial shroud, to acknowledge that this celebration was also the beginning of the last chapter of her life. Many of us who joined together on that brilliant Shabbat morning in November 1986 in Los Angeles were stunned by the dissonance between Savina's vitality and this symbol of death. With clarity and strength, Savina reminded all of us of the imperative of "numbering our days." On that Shabbat morning, Debbie Friedman introduced "Lechi Lach," written with Savina, a song that encourages each of us be a source of, and an agent for blessing.

Savina reclaimed the stories of Sarah and Hagar through her writing, and through her life. Like Sarah, Savina went forth into new lands, without maps or mentors to guide her. Like Sarah and Hagar, Savina lived in a patriarchal world, challenging that world with her choices and her clarity about the work she was called to complete. The last week of Savina's life was the week in which Jews around the world read the portion VaYera, which tells of Abraham and Sarah's gracious welcome to the strangers revealed as God's messengers. Savina was one the founders of a long-standing Shabbat minyan, "Shabbat Sheni," and of the vibrant community, "Sarah's Tent." Savina's home, like Sarah's, was open to those who gathered to celebrate Shabbat, to welcome the new month, to study Torah, or to plan for the feminist transformation of the world.

May her memory be a blessing.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell has been teaching and writing about Jewish women's history and feminist spirituality for the past 20 years. The Founding Director of the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Center and a founder of B'not Esh, Elwell edited the new Reform haggadah The Open Door, and Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation. For more information on Rabbi Elwell, see the Jewish Women's Archive exhibit "Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution."

teubal.jpg - still image [media]
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Savina Teubal.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Savina J. Teubal, 1926 - 2005." (Viewed on July 22, 2014) <http://jwa.org/weremember/teubal-savina>.

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