Recently, I discovered an organisation called “Beit Toratah” “The House of Her Torah:” a group of women who are re-writing the Tanach, reversing the genders of all the different characters in order to “shed a clear light on the deeply patriarchal framework we live in…(they) codify women’s experiences in the sacred and enable divine inspiration to express itself through mother-daughter lineages from within Biblical language.” In otherwords, by reversing the genders of all the characters in the Torah, they uncover a completely different story, even though the stories themselves are unchanged. They say “(we) discover matriarchs in complex leadership positions, meet patriarchs who nurture their daughters.” It is a radical way to read the Torah, something I would venture to suggest, is completely new, and it leads to incredibly interesting interpretations and understandings of the Torah.
When I first discovered this re-imagining of the Torah, I brought it to our women’s Rosh Hodesh group and suggested we read a couple of well- known stories, with the genders reversed. I began with the story of Noah and his ark, which became, Nocha and her ark. A woman built the sheltering home, she organised all the animals and she protected them. I found this reading of the story of Noah incredibly confronting, it led me to ask “how could she have abandoned everyone in the earth except her immediate family?” “How could she not fight for the lives of those around her?” But the women in the group were not really affected, they shrugged as if to say, “fine, Noah is now Nocha and a woman, big deal.” I was surprised because I thought that discussion would take ages. So I brought out the other story that I had copied, the “just in case story,” and that was this week’s portion, the tale of Abraham taking his son Isaac to be sacrificed to God on a mountain. In the Toratah version, Avraham becomes Emrahama and she takes her daughter to the top of the mountain to sacrifice her to God. I read it, expecting another shrug and prepared to wrap up early, but I could not have been more wrong. The women were disturbed, confronted, challenged, there was a range of strong emotions at the idea that a woman would sacrifice her child, that she could take her daughter to be offered to this demanding God, who remember, in this version, is also female. The reactions were almost visceral. There is something so confronting about the notion of a woman killing her child, of the one who is nurturer, demanding such a sacrifice, and another, the mother of the child, being willing to take her to be offered up on the mountain.
The language of gender is so powerful, it shapes the way we view our stories and ourselves. So often, women have been written out of the stories of our people, and by taking this radical step we push the male voices to the margins and highlight the women. But the actions feel and seem different when they are placed in the hands of women. I hope that we will hold a service where we will read from the text of Beit Torahta and really have the opportunity to see how it changes the way we see our Torah stories and the actions of the characters and also where we place ourselves. In the meantime, maybe read this week’s Torah portion at the Beit Toratah website (www.beittoratah.org) and see how you feel about the text and the story viewed through a different lens.
May we all have a Shabbat of opening our minds to new possibilities and ways of being and understanding our Torah.
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio