Engaging with Holy Text

May 2, 2014
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Sue Levi Elwell and Nancy Fuchs Kreimer (eds.), Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives: Cascade Books, (2013) 206 pp., $25, $9.99 on Kindle

Ruth Calderon, A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales, translated by Ilana Kurshan: Jewish Publication Society, (2014) 163 pp., $21.95, $10.99 on Kindle

 

As a rabbi and teacher, I’m passionate about finding more accessible ways for students to find holiness, both in the “texts” of their own daily lives and the holy texts of our tradition. These two books — Sue Levi Elwell and Nancy Fuchs Kreimer’s edited collection, Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives and Ruth Calderon’s A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales — provide wonderful illustrations of the interweaving of these two kinds of holy text. The former begins with the Torah of everyday life. In the latter, we read about the lives of characters found in the aggadic stories of the Talmud, retold to bring these stories alive in new ways.

In Chapters of the Heart, the editors asked a number of women, all of whom already have considerable reputations as rabbis, theologians, and academics, to open their hearts, delve into their “considerable Jewish vocabulary,” and share what they found. While expert in professional fields, and particularly competent at finding and explicating meaning in the texts and histories of Jewish tradition, the editors recognize that, “… like everyone else, when it comes to our own lives, we are still trying to figure out how to live with grace. And each of us, in our own way, is still exploring what it all means.” (p. xi)

What results is an exceptionally honest and self-revealing set of reflections. All of the contributors share their experiences, interwoven with wisdom drawn from a variety of traditional Jewish texts that help the authors to mine spiritual insight and meaning from personal narratives. The stories are enormously diverse: on accompanying a mother with Alzheimer’s through her latter years (Rachel Adler), on living a hybrid life within a Modern Orthodox community as a feminist scholar teaching Reform rabbinical students (Wendy Zierler), or what a mother who grew up among sisters learns when she births a son (Hara Person). Others share stories of the painful loss of a child or a spouse, the straining of sibling relationships, the choice to have an abortion, and the holy work of accompanying others when they make that choice.

We feel as though the writers are sharing what is most often only shared among the most intimate of friends.

In contrast, Calderon’s collection of stories takes us on a journey into the narrative landscape of stories found in the Talmud. Calderon wants us to read these texts and consider “what they hold in store for us, and what stands to be gained from the encounter between ancient texts and modern readers.” (p. xi)

In each chapter, Calderon begins with a translation of the story, often terse and bewildering. This is followed by her own midrashic interpretation of the story that opens it up and beckons us inside into the world of the characters. Finally, she writes her own exegesis of her midrash, explaining what aspects of human experience she sought to bring to light through her rereading of this literature. Through questions, argument, and debate, she draws us into the narrative world of these talmudic tales in ways that are accessible to all.

Both books bravely teach us new ways to engage with holy text, challenging readers to think more deeply about how our own lives may serve as text.

 

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Rachel Gurevitz is the senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, Mass. She has a doctorate in cultural geography from University College London. She shares a chapter of her own life, “Coming Out All Over Again,” in the forthcoming volume, The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, edited by Lisa J. Grushcow (CCAR Press).

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