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On Purim and Women Teachers of Text

The holiday of Purim, whose observance centers around the public chanting of the Book of Esther, is a yearly opportunity to reflect on women in the Jewish textual tradition, and women’s relationship to this tradition. A woman, after all, has top billing as one of the story’s two heroes, a true rarity within the Bible. With courage and humility, Esther skillfully maneuvers the nuances of her socio-political context to save her people. The story is riveting and her role is prominent. The only thing that tempers the satisfaction of celebrating Esther’s victory alongside her is how the centrality and power of her role is so atypical, standing in sharp contrast to the rest of the Bible.

This Purim, I am struck by another group of women who courageously maneuver their social context for the benefit of their people. I’m speaking of the women teachers of Jewish sacred texts. Last year, I noticed an astonishing fact: the solid majority of those who had taught me Jewish texts were women. This fact is remarkable on several levels.

First, until very recently, women––with only a few exceptions––were not allowed to study the Jewish sacred canon at all, much less teach it. At the same time, in many parts of the Jewish world, men’s study was highly regarded; it was an activity that some men engaged in extensively, or even full time. Not only were women barred from this central aspect of Jewish intellectual and spiritual expression, but the Jewish community has been deprived of millennia of women’s contributions to the otherwise rich inter-generational conversation of textual interpretation and reinterpretation, preservation and innovation, which is in many ways the cornerstone of Judaism. Women from nearly every stream of Judaism––Reconstructionist, Renewal, Reform, Modern Orthodox, Conservative––and with a multitude of identities: academic, yeshivah, and/or rabbinic training, queer and straight, have taught me. This diversity of both thought and experience testifies to the extent that this recent trend has spread throughout the Jewish world.

Secondly, it is amazing not only that there are so many women teaching text today, but that I, as a Jewish man, have been taught by them and benefitted from their skill, dedication, and insights. This influence on my education and perspective is a radical undermining of so many generations of patriarchy, and yet it has seemed so natural––and has been so beneficial to my intellectual and spiritual growth–– that I can scarcely believe it was not always commonplace.

It is not just the fact of women teaching––and teaching men like me––that is worth acknowledging and celebrating. Even more noteworthy is the fact that these sacred texts frequently push women away––often harshly––yet women continue to engage with them and teach them. My female teachers have modelled a variety of approaches to the difficult texts, including reinterpretation, critique, midrash, and historical contextualization, though never apologetics. Whatever the approach, the attitude that has been conveyed throughout my experiences being taught by women has been a commitment to stay in the conversation and to lovingly struggle with the texts. If I had not been taught by so many women who I knew were in the conversation despite so often being made unwelcome, I would likely have given up long ago. I owe my path towards the rabbinate in no small part to them.

These women educators’ commitment benefits more than just women. Realisitically, portions and aspects of the texts marginalize or push away most of us in one way or another: women, LGBTQ people, members of interfaith families, people with disabilities, Jews by choice, etc. Anyone with values informed by secular and Jewish thought from modernity to the present will find some texts off-putting. My female teachers of Jewish texts have taught me that it is both possible and rewarding to stay involved with our textual tradition despite the difficulties. They have rescued the texts for all of us by showing how to remain fully engaged in the millennia-old textual conversation while holding both our love for it and the pain the text can sometimes cause. Their non-apologetic approach allows us to bring our full selves face-to-face with the text.

Viewed against the backdrop of history, the sheer numbers of women studying and teaching Jewish sacred text at this moment in time stands out as much as Esther’s central role does against the canvass of the Bible as a whole. Yet, just like Esther, these women are taking the textual tradition into their own hands. The Book of Esther itself recalls that Esther sent out a second letter that established observance of the holiday. This letter became the permanent record (Esther 9:29-32): Mordechai may have had the first word, but Esther had the last––and the most lasting–– word, as confirmed by the name of the scroll we read on Purim. Perhaps it was necessary for everyone to hear from Esther herself before the holiday could truly take hold in the minds and hearts of the people, just as today, hearing from women teachers of text is so necessary for us to truly let the texts into our lives. Just as the Jews in the Book of Esther benefitted from Esther’s courage–– and we join them in celebrating throughout the generations because Esther made sure to leave her mark on the tradition by setting down observance of the holiday in writing––the efforts of today’s women scholars of Jewish texts are a blessing to us all, and to the generations to come.

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Invitation to Fancy Dress Ball, Purim Association of New York City, 1881
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Invitation to Fancy Dress Ball, Purim Association of the City of New York, 1881.
Courtesy of National Museum of American Jewish History.
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How to cite this page

Weisman, Josh. "On Purim and Women Teachers of Text." 10 March 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 21, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/on-purim-and-women-teachers-of-text>.

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