Episode 65: Regendering the Torah (Transcript)

Episode 65: Regendering the Torah

[Theme music]

Nahanni: Hi and welcome back!  It’s Nahanni Rous, here with another season of Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history and Jewish culture meet.

The Torah reading cycle has started over again, and we’re kicking off our fall season with a new feminist revisioning of Judaism’s most sacred text.

SOUND: Aliyah, call to the Torah

Nahanni: That is the call to the Torah. If it sounds a little different than usual, it’s because the Hebrew blessing is directed at a feminine form of God. It’s part of a project called Toratah, or Her Torah, which is a new effort to help women connect with Jewish text… by regendering the entire Torah. Here’s Yael Kanarek, the project’s founder.

Yael :  Since, um, the Tanakh is the book we have. And the book I was brought up with, what would happen if, uh, if the main characters become female, if the divine influence goes through a mother daughter lineage, will it feel different?

Nahanni  Jewish feminists have been reinterpreting Jewish texts for decades. There is a whole body of midrash and commentary aimed at being more inclusive of women’s experience. There have also been efforts to reconnect with feminine aspects of the divine, and rewrite liturgy so that it is non patriarchal.

Toratah was born of a similar impulse, but Yael has gone about it differently. Instead of filling in missing gaps, she is literally rewriting Judaism’s most sacred text-- flipping the gender of each character. This has opened up new ways of understanding the stories and connecting with the text.

SOUND: Leining of first aliyah of the Book of Genesis, Parshat Bereshit

Yael has been working on this project since 2016. She has teamed up with others and they have already rewritten the entire five books of the Torah, and several other books in the Jewish canon. They hold weekly Toratah readings-- for now, virtually-- like this one, of the beginning of the book of Genesis-- the creation story.

SOUND: Leining of first aliyah of the Book of Genesis, Parshat Bereshit

Yael grew up in Israel, and says she was alienated from the Orthodox Judaism that surrounded her. She came to New York in 1991 to pursue her career as a visual and digital artist. She also began to study the Jewish mystical practice of Kabbalah. I talked with her recently, and she told me about the inspiration for Toratah.

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Yael: I did it because I was desperate. Yeah. I did it for myself. And at some point the rabbi I was studying with said, uh, in, at some point you have to start building new vessels for the divine, with what you learned, basically applying what you learned, And I was like, okay. Uh, but, and then it was looking around, but I don't have language. All the language that I’ve studied in relation to the divine starts from a man's point of view. Where's my, how would I go about it? I don't have language. I don't have enough words that are in that place of relationship to the divine. I felt lacking.

So I started, uh, rewriting the Torah, reversing the genders of all the characters. So all the female characters became male and all the male characters became female.

Nahanni: Really. How did you get the idea? I mean, you said this at the beginning that you just started playing with it, but where did that, where did the idea come from? It's like chutzpadik in the most wonderful way.

Yael: Oh, it's chutzpah all the way. Really. You know, when I did the first few lines I looked up to the ceiling to make sure that it didn’t fall on my head. I was like, it didn't fall! I mean, I was raised with the same, you know, kind of, you know, attitude towards Torah like everyone else.

Um, it started when I came to New York, I remember, I remember hearing about Ms. Magazine. And about the importance of language and defining, you know, reality and, um, and work the feminists were doing with language in English.

This was all really fresh and wonderful and new. And I was so happy to live in English where not everything is gendered all the time. I was, it felt really liberating. You know, and then you start to understand how the fabric of your reality, what builds the fabric of our reality, what language builds, what behavior, what ritual builds the fabric of our reality through which we understand the world.

Nahanni: I mean, I guess, you know, Hebrew is so gendered a language but when you think about the fabric of our reality, it's, it's so woven into every language, really.

Yael: Absolutely. Yeah. And, and the role that the Bible plays in our culture at large… is extraordinary. I mean, I don't have any other word for that extraordinary. And so what are now, we are condemned forever to the story “and he shall rule you”?? I mean, really, I mean, seriously, really is that the legacy we have for children? It's mad, it's maddening.

Nahanni: Enter Toratah. Yael began this project at the beginning, with the Book of Genesis. Here’s what she’s done with the name of God and the creation story.

Yael: So now what happens is that divine feminine Tehova Elohin is creating the Hova. And from there we have a whole, the whole succession of characters.

Nahanni:  Ok, let’s slow this down a little. Tehova is from the Hebrew letters yud-heh-vav-hey, the name of God that is traditionally not pronounced. In English it’s sometimes pronounced Jehova, and Tehova is the feminized form. In another break from tradition, Yael thinks we should pronounce the name Tehova, since our relationship with this form of the divine is so new. Elohin is the feminized form of Elohim, another traditional name for God. And Tehova Elohin creates the Hova, the first human.

Yael: So the stories that we know is Adam and Eve, uh, eve in Hebrew is Chava. And, uh, we changed the vowelization a little bit to Hova, which means “she who is experiencing.” So in this process, when the Elohin creates the Hova in her likeness, after her image, she creates an entity that can feel—the Hova.

Nahanni: In the traditional Torah, Eve’s name appears only twice, but the human race is known as Bnei Adam, the sons of Adam.

So now in, uh, the regendered Bible, the name Adam appears only twice. And the name Hova is the name for the human race. The human race in Toratah— Her Torah—is called the daughters of the Hova, the daughters of the one who experiences.

Yael: So we have Elohin creating now… And then she brings the Hova and, uh, she asks her to, you know, call names to everything. She teaches her to speak. A nd then she creates for her a helpmate, an ish.

Nahanni: The first man. In Toratah, the story lines have not changed. Yael just flipped the genders of the characters and their corresponding verbs. In Hebrew, even place names have genders, so Yael flipped the genders of the place names too.

Yael: Yes. And actually it became even more intense, since all the names mean something. It means that all the names of places meet something. So we had to also address them because most of those are also in the male form.

Um, so a place like Mitzrayim, Egypt is Mitzrayim, became Mitzerot. Uh, the, the women who are lamenting or the women who make a place tighter, narrower.

Nahanni: Now, why did you feel like you had to change place names?

Yael: Um, because it felt that it was relevant. So, there is, um, on one level, the story tells us, uh, how to locate the divine in the body, but it also tells us how to locate the divine in the geography. Uh, and so it felt like it was relevant.

So every time that we felt that changing a name would be relevant to experiencing the divine feminine’s expression, it made sense to also change the gender there.

It's really stunning, you know, the depth and the presence of the male language in the text is so thorough, and this process really illuminated that in a very deep way.

Nahanni: So what's different about this approach then, you know, somebody like Marcia Falk wrote the Book of Blessings, which is a prayer book that's designed to be egalitarian instead of patriarchal?

Yael: She's done an amazing job-- in liturgy. Uh, and I think most of the work that has been done has been done in liturgy, but not in the canon itself. So what happens is that you are, uh, you know, uh, celebrating, you know, egalitarian or divine feminine, and then when you get to the text, again, you're in this deeply patriarchal mind. Um, so there's a strange dissonance here. We have to deal with the text itself. There's no, there's no, I mean, it's the next logical step. Hmm. Why is there that then the huge library of, you know, Jewish sacred texts, we don't have texts written by women?

Nahanni:  And that's important to many women, like Yael, who want to see their own experience reflected in sacred text.

Yael: I want to know, for example, I want to tie menstruation to the divine in a deep way. Not through the idea of tumah.... At the moment. Menstruation is described in, in terms of, uh, of tumah, tehorah and tuma.

Nahanni: Which means purity and impurity.

Yael: Um, but is there another way to, to talk about that is another way to unfold, that is not in this category at all?  For example, in the fourth chapter of Toratah, we meet Hevla and Kina. Cain and Abel become Kina and Hevla.

Nahanni: The Biblical brothers Cain and Abel, the first sons of Adam and Eve, become the sisters Kina and Hevla. As in the traditional text, Kina kills her sister Hevla. In the traditional text, God punishes Cain and condemns him to a life of wandering. In Hebrew-- na v’ nad.

Yael: Na v’ nad-- moving and drifting. The nad part of it has its meaning in Toratah to be bleeding. We changed the vowel of the word.. of the word nada, moving through the space, to nida. So now she's na’ah, now means moving, and nida means menstruation. “Drifting and bleeding you will be on the earth.”

Nahanni: Hebrew words are based on roots. By changing the gender and sometimes pronunciation -- which is easy to do because the original Torah text doesn’t have vowels -- Yael has dug deep and pulled out new meanings-- in this case, finding nida, or menstruation, in the root of the word nad, which means moving, or drifting.

Yael: And why is this interesting? It's interesting because now we can open new commentary and new thoughts that are not existing yet. For example, Elohin says to her, Kina, where is Hevla your sister? And she says, I don't know, am I my sister's keeper? And Tehova Elohin says to her, what have you done? The voice of your sister's blood is calling to me from the earth.

And now we have a really interesting lesson or connection-- things to unfold. It's not a simple thing. It's an interesting complex set of ideas.

Nahanni: The new language brings out new connections. In this case, there are new interpretations about the meaning of menstruation that are not simply connected to the traditional ideas of purity and impurity.

Yael: You know, moving around while menstruating is not fun, that's not... so it even accentuates and makes her despair even more powerful. Now more-- is she leaving tracks behind? You know, is, is her menstruation begins after she kills her sister? Is she coming of age? You know, And that's an event that happened before. I mean, there's so much interesting psychological...

Nahanni: There's so many questions to ask.

Yael: Exactly. And these are new questions.

Nahanni: Right.

Yael: These are new questions.

Nahanni: Yeah. It made me think. It made me think of the powerful image of having not only killed a person, but killed all of her descendants, all of the possibility that would have come from her line.

Yael: Exactly. Exactly. This is what I mean, codifying, uh, women's experience in the sacred. It doesn't mean that it has to be pretty. It's mythologizing the experience in various ways. That's what I mean. That's what I needed. I needed to have this conversation.

No, it's not easier, Toratah is not a stroll in the park. Toratah doesn't sit well with our feminist ideals of, you know, uh, a woman run world that is better. You know, it doesn't sit with that well. It forces us to meet really difficult stories. Women that are rapists and women that are really complicated, uh, women that are evil, you know, but, and then women that are great.

 

Nahanni: I'm thinking that you are building a new kind of, um, Pantheon of female characters and, and you know, in, in theory, if people take to this, they will sort of solidify in our consciousness as, as role model, you know, as flawed role models in the same way that the patriarchs are kind of flawed role models for us now. Um, and I'm wondering if that's your intention or if it's, or is it more that the power sort of lies in casting off the old framework?

Yael: Actually, I see it only as 1.0. This is the act of breaking the locks and saying, hold on, there's a missing canon here. This is the place I started because I don't know another place. I was brought up with this. So this is the place I can have a relationship with that is tangible.

Uh, let's do this first, but from there, once you have these characters, then you can start building other stories. And I think the stories that can come, the mythology that can come after that, the sacred mythology, will be a lot freer.

Nahanni: So where do you envision this text then in relation to the traditional text? Is it a parallel? Is it a parallel universe? is it a replacement?

Yael: Uh, I think it's an expansion. I think of the body that our spiritual body has two hands, two, uh, two legs, two eyes, two ears. I feel it's the missing part.

Nahanni: So it occurs to me that this is a very binary kind of formulation. And I'm wondering if you also considered ways of hinting at a multiplicity of genders rather than a switch from masculine to feminine?

Yael: The greatest pushback so far that I received, and I'm sure, sure we're going to get more pushback from all sorts of people, but the greatest pushback at the moment that I received was actually from, um, uh, nonbinary people.

Nahanni: That's what I was thinking. Yeah.

Yael: But so what happens? So if this is no good, then we're ending with nothing again? We're back at patriarchy!

Nahanni: No, no. I was just wondering if you had thought of any other ways of going about this.

Yael: Not my project. I'm not the one to do that. I can't know anything intimate about it. It's not my project. It's the project of people who experienced the world in that way, they need to do that work. You can't stand in the shoes that you can't walk in, in the same way that we can't expect men to write Toratah. We can't expect that. We can’t expect them to write our sacred books.

Nahanni: So, you know, it strikes me that this, that you feel a real urgency about this, and it's like a grid of utmost importance, but that also you seem to be having a lot of fun with it.

Yael: It's the sense of discovery that is extraordinary. You know, in Toratah, there is no Rabbanut, there is no halacha, there's no Talmud.

Nahanni: No rabbinic authority, no Jewish law, and no codified interpretation.

Yael: It's us in front of the stories in their most immediate sense, because they're also stripped from history-- Toratah is not historical, as stories. It's not referring to historical places. Um, the geography is completely fresh as well. So we are able to really connect with the essence of the stories. So we can come to it completely, completely fresh. You know, with a fresh open slate. It's like starting Torah all over again.

Nahanni: How do you envision people using this text? Do you envision people studying it and creating commentaries around it, doing weekly Torah readings, Toratah readings...

Yael: Yes, absolutely. I think a big question is how it's integrated into the existing, um, into Shuls, into existing ritual.

Nahanni: And is it on a scroll?

Yael: So I did it. So when I just started doing this, I felt that I needed to do a proof of concept and I hired a scribe, Julie Seltzer to do Chapter Two and she sent it to me and I have it here hanging in my living room and it looked at, it was like, yep, yep. I'm getting the same feeling, exactly the same feeling.

As an artist I know, I understand how media works and how media works on us. What is the language of our reverence? You know, what is the visual language of our reverence? What are the objects of our reverence? I know that... I know how it, I know how it's done.

Nahanni: How do you feel like your approach to life as an artist has shaped this project?

Yael: Contemporary art taught me to approach a subject, um, by, uh, deconstructing and rebuilding. You look at something, you turn it on its head, you take it apart, you reshape it, you rebuild it. You are trying to understand something by taking it apart and rebuilding it, not necessarily knowing in advance where it will take you.

And that's the beauty of being, you know, being able to sort of contribute also to the wealth of the language. You know, language is a tool for the people that need to use it. And we needed new words. So we made them up. But for me as an artist, that's very natural to do.

Nahanni: Yael hopes that through Toratah, others will find their own voice and their own language.

Yael: We'll have a generation that studies Torah starting from Toratah. We're going to have, you know, other, you know, other thinkers, but we are in the desert. I love the word desert-- in Hebrew it’s midbar-- it's the root for to speak. We're learning to speak. We're learning a new language. We’re always in the midbar anyway.

SOUND: Closing blessing

[Theme music]

Nahanni: Yael Kanarek and her collaborator Tamar Biala have rewritten all five books of the regendered Torah. They will be releasing them in Hebrew over the course of this year at beittoratah.org. Beit Toratah is also hosting a weekly online text study.

Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. I am delighted to welcome our new producer, Jen Richler! Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You also heard the voices of Rabbi Marisa James, Rabbi Mira Rivera and Rabbi Emily Cohen in a recording of the first online Toratah reading. 

The Jewish Women’s Archive is celebrating its 25th anniversary! We hope you’ll join us— along with Gloria Steinem and Beanie Feldstein—for our virtual celebration on Thursday, November 4th at 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific. For more information and to sign up, go to jwa.org/celebrate25!  We’d love to see you there.

You can find Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk.

I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Until next time!

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 65: Regendering the Torah (Transcript)." (Viewed on November 27, 2021) <https://jwa.org/episode-65-regendering-torah-transcript>.

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