Friday, November 12, 2010

Is There a Glass Ceiling in our Text Study Community? – Part II

This discussion is dedicated to my wonderful daughter Talie (presently in Medical School at Ben Gurion University), with whom I discussed the last posting this morning during our pre-Shabbat chat. She was not sure what my point was and that I was inadvertently agreeing with those who say women should not study these texts, so perhaps being subject to the venue of blog writing here, I need to continue this discussion. That same daughter along with her sisters and brother explained that my first entries when I started this venture were too long and that blogging is a shorter format than the publishing venues with which I am more familiar. So in the interest of brevity, I may have sacrificed clarity. Here goes! [Feel free to review the previous posting at this point before proceeding.]

My point was that women and the “feminine side” of all of us --- men and women --- bring with them a different type of analysis of the texts we study. This is not a matter of “women are touchy feely and soft and sensitive” and thus falling into the Rabbinic trap of precisely why women should not study Gemara. RATHER, there is a GREAT DEAL to be said for the SOFTER and more COMPASSIONATE side of who we are. It is this side of the text that women often give wonderful voice to. Remember we are told by our sociology and psychology experts that we all have both a masculine and feminine side to our personality, some more of one and others more of the other. There is NO magic formula that works for all of us.

I know men that DO get this. On the other hand, I know women that “just want the facts.” This is not a delineated either/or matter. My point was that those women who are grabbed and intrigued by the study of these texts and their many layers of meaning bring an “appreciation of the variegated shades of grey” to a discussion that often incorporates so much BLACK or WHITE types of discourse and can add the perspective of the existence of this important continuum.

One way I test this with my students in my text study classes (high school and college/graduate school level) is to present several commentators and ask which ones they prefer. For example, I can use just the choice between Ramban and Rashi to illustrate my point, and of course, they were both males. Rashi is to the point, clear and dedicated to the PROPER READING of the text. Ambiguities are explained, two different tellings of one event interfaced, and details in language and word choice explicated in a manner so that there is NO QUESTION of the Divine Authorship of the text of Torah or Talmud. Ramban on the other hand will consider all of the sides of a given issue, even using language like “it appears to me that” or “on the other hand one could consider that” and so on. This is a process language. Elements of the narrative and their understanding for Ramban feel to me like process, while for Rashi the narrative seems more like events and details to be clarified.

This was the preference of my son – just explain what happened and why. He was not so interested in the many different shades of WHY such and such happened and the different perspectives through which one could view a given chain of events, as is the soul (I think so anyway) of Gemara study. This is where he says “Too much analysis and deep reading, I want to move on.”

Clearly, this is a matter of personal preference. To be sure, I have female students who are the Rashi type personalities and male students that are more akin to Ramban. Of course, when it comes to football….. well, many more male Rambans jump out in my mind’s room of friends and family!

At any rate, we all learn and analyze the texts we learn differently in consonance with our personality. My only point was that I think that many women who are drawn to this study come with these layers of grey possibilities when looking in the text, making our study experience wider and more extensive as well as compassionate regarding the various motivations and circumstances about which we read, while being applicable to our own lives in a deeply personal way. I would hope that these voices add to the landscape of text study for ALL OF US, both males and females.

Any questions?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Is There a Glass Ceiling in our Text Study Community?

So, there we were, Brian and me, studying our Gemara text one night last week. We are almost up to 10b and I just continue to get jazzed and excited about the ideas and the thoughts that are flying across the space of time and place on the Daf and at our table of study. I think about these ideas and their ramifications for how I put my world together continuously, as I always do when studying such thick and deep texts. In our lesson together, we get to a point where the prayer of Hannah is mentioned, so we go to the text of Shmuel Aleph. We read a bit of Chapters One and Two and we discuss the events that have occurred, Eli’s observance of Hannah praying, and his assumption that she was drunk and the ensuing prayer she offers. I am really focused on understanding the value of what happens here and what we can extract as powerful lessons on spirituality, practice and so much else. Precisely as I am in this mindset, Brian begins to ask lots of questions about Hannah and Eli and other personae in the Tanach text – where they were, who they were and what they did – and then proceeds to tell me that he is really tired of learning Gemara and wants to return to study of Tanach. I am crestfallen at the thought of losing my built-in chevrutah (for this study anyway) and ask him why he feels this way. At this point, he says something to the effect of the fact that I like to think about and delve into and analyze ideas, but this is boring for him because “it does not change anything.” He prefers something with a story line. Enter the Tanach text.

So then, of course I begin to think about the IDEA of what just happened. Brian would expect nothing less of me I suspect! We really are wired differently in a most general yet distinct way, we males and females. Clearly we all have our feminine and masculine sides and inclinations, but I have to wonder if the inertia of what happens when studying Gemara and other Jewish texts has not changed and been significantly enhanced in our world today precisely DUE to the inclusion of more and more women in the process. I note this sometimes when many of the young men in my classes may not be as excited as many of the young women when we are analyzing a text to death. I know…. They are SO there when what we are analyzing is a football game or a car’s engine. But, as Brian would say, what changes by virtue of the fact that we go over and over what G-d might have prayed if G-d indeed prayed; or why the Shema of the evening can be said far more into the wee hours than the permitted boundary for the eating of the last part of the Pesah Seder. What is an AHA UREKA! moment for me is often an “okay enough already” moment for Brian and a good amount of my male students as well, I suspect. To be sure, female students may feel “enough” as well; but I wonder if I am not on to something here.

Yet when we think of the groundbreaking strides made by Nechama Leibowitz z’l, Aviva Zornberg, Tamar Ross and others like them in leading us through texts with their scholarly guidance; when I sit and learn with so many others in a variety of venues in which women have much more of a voice and so many more resources to pull from; when my daughter Talie was able to have this amazing year at Midreshet Lindenbaum; when my daughter Rachie is part of the Hadar community in New York; when my daughter Yoella prepares a Shiyur like no one I know – I really have to wonder if indeed all of these voices and so many more bring a different level of sensitivity, an increased desire to really explore and expand upon ideas, and a perspective that adds both dimension and intelligence to our text study world.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say yes! I have always been a big fan of Rashi’s daughters, Bruriah, Devorah, and others who ventured into the male world of Jewish study and scholarship. I do believe that we have a different perspective as women that we bring to the text and to the fabric of the process of studying that text. I can only hope that we will continue to be able to share that perspective in as many venues as possible

Friday, November 5, 2010

So Rashi, I think I finally get you!

As a teacher of Jewish texts, I find that Rashi is often one of the discussants at our learning table when we are learning material from Tanach or Talmud. Further, I often think that more than only considering Rashi’s analyzing of text, we often analyze Rashi himself. As Nechama Leibowitz (z’l) always taught, “Mah Kasheh LeRashi?,” that is “what is bothering Rashi?”. So, I personally have had my battles with Rashi through the years, or to be more precise, with THE WAY IN WHICH MANY PEOPLE USE the commentary of Rashi, on a par with the actual text, be it Torah or Talmud! Somehow, this always bothered me. As a response, I have tried to figure out not WHAT Rashi says but WHY HE SAYS IT. Nechama would be proud of me, I think!

Now, you know how you do the same thing so many times and then one time you do this thing, a light bulb goes off in a way that it never did before?!

Now, we all know the teaching of Rashi that

אין מוקדם ואין מאוחר בתורה
(Loosely translated as “there is not chronology in the Torah”)

Allow me to explain how this always bothered me on a rather simple level. Of course there is chronology in the Torah. One explanation of this principle is that there is not chronology within Parshiot. But this also does not necessarily hold. So, after hearing Rashi’s voice when he asks “Why is this story connected to that story?” as he did a few weeks ago in Parshat Va’Era in terms of why the story of Sarah’s pregnancy and birth of Yitzchak is right after the incident of Avimelech’s illness and setback and in looking at the connectedness of the narratives of the scouts going into Eretz Canaan and the conflict between Miriam, Aharon and Moshe over Tzipora in BaMidbar, I think the question regarding his stated principle is different. This is not necessarily about chronology per se. It appears that what Rashi is saying is to not assume or think that chronology dictates how stories are joined together but rather LOOK FOR THE BIGGER LESSON! So, for example in Va’Era, we are taught that there is a “Midah keneged Midah” (a measure or a lesson to complement a measure or a lesson) dynamic where Avraham prays EVEN FOR HIS ADVERSARY in asking G-d to heal Avimelech and those with him; AND THEN immediately after this, we hear about the healing of Sarah and Avraham with the birth of Yitzchak. In BaMidbar, the story of Miriam and the contention in her family and that of the Meraglim/scouts are both stories that teach important aspects of how we should and should not use language. These are, we are told, both stories tied by the theme of how we should not use destructive language/Lashon HaRa, even with the most positive or benign of intentions.

The point is, I think, that we are to always look for the BIGGER LESSON and the Torah is written and crafted in such a way as to give us a hint regarding the presence of these lessons. This makes sense!

So, while I may have intuited this idea along the way, it blasted through me like a lightening rod when Brian and I were continuing our intensive learning of Berachot, Perek Aleph from the Gemara this past week. There is a discussion of HaMelech David and his crafting of the Tehilim/Psalms (10a). One of the questions that is posed in the Gemara is why does the Tehila/Psalm that is connected to David’s running from his son Avshalom before (chronologically speaking) the one that is dedicated to his experience of running from Shaul. Once again we listened to Rashi’s voice and then Brian and I tried to figure out the meaning – that is the BIGGER LESSON found in this ordering. We came to the point where we proposed that it is more painful to have to run from one’s son than from one’s political opponent, so to speak. This makes sense in terms of one idea I remember hearing that Tehilim generally move from Tehilim of vexing and anguish to those of praise and thanks. It was at this point that the light bulb shone brightly in my head – we are to look first for the BIG LESSON and afterwards, ONLY THEN attend to the other aspects of how Torah and the texts of our beginnings are handed over, for it is in fact these BIG LESSONS that are the raison d’etre of our continued and repeated study of these important documents and their narratives. It is this deeply rooted emotional and personal reflective aspect of study that is most valuable when we consider the purpose and timeless presence of these texts in our lives and the purpose of relearning and reviewing them in an ongoing rhythm.

Thank you, Rashi; and thank you, Brian. Now, I really get this!