Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman Among Books" by Ilana M. Blumberg is a slim volume, published by the University of Nebraska Press. It’s a quiet type of book, not one that shouts for attention — a book that could easily be missed among the thousands of new titles published each year.
But it’s a book that deserves a serious readership: a memoir that reads like a poem, a voice that’s intelligent, brave, passionate and conversant in the Jewish texts she incorporates. Blumberg, now an assistant professor of humanities, culture and writing at James Madison College, Michigan State University, writes of Jewish life as an insider, with respect and with many questions.
Two quotes about light appear as the book’s epigraph, with lines of Torah commentary from Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin followed by the words of George Eliot from "Romola," about how certain light shows "all things in the slow history of their ripening."
Blumberg is very open and articulate about her own path of Jewish learning and secular learning, and her efforts to reconcile the two as she grew older and they "often posed serious problems for each other." And, as a woman who loves learning, who believes that "to learn is to live," she struggles with expectations about gender.
The 36-year-old author is the daughter of parents who had gone to yeshiva day school in the 1950s and then on to college and graduate school; both of her paternal grandparents completed graduate degrees early in the 20th century. She attended Conservative summer camps and elementary school and when she went on to study in a Modern Orthodox high school (there was no Conservative high school then in Chicago), her family shifted its religious practice to Orthodoxy.
After high school, she spent a year in Jerusalem at Midreshet Lindenbaum, known as Brovender’s, where she studied Bible and Talmud with other young women. She describes how one teacher "lifted phrases like thin threads of gold onto her fingers to make shining bridges of them." Returning to the U.S., she attended Barnard, where she and fellow "Brovender’s girls" were religious suffragettes, interested in continuing their Talmud study, not alone but among men in the beit midrash. Among her professors, she found a sympathetic community, "women who knew what it was to be judged by sex, shut out of libraries. But they had crossed over, and I had not yet."
In college, her life was one of prayer, study, keeping the law and generosity of behavior, all acts for the sake of heaven. Clothing became a way to talk about possible futures, and about lives left behind; the nuance and symbolism of long skirts or fitted skirts or pants, the notion of covering one’s hair after marriage. Her own path was independence and study, but at 25, she had attended more than 30 weddings and felt the loneliness of her choice. She doesn’t shy from writing of personal details, or events that might seem transgressive, like her romance in graduate school with a gentile man, and her subsequent decisions.
Blumberg began the book in 1993, soon after returning from Israel, when she wrote "Binah," the first chapter. In an interview, she notes that it was only when she wrote the second piece that it became clear that this was a book in the making. But it took several years to complete. As she explains, "I had to watch the rest of my life unfold in order to write more."
The book ends with her life now as a professor, wife and mother. Her husband grew up in Reform Judaism, but didn’t find enough books and scholarship there, and together they have crafted a modern life, integrated into the Orthodox community in Ann Arbor, Mich. She resisted ending the book with marriage, as that wasn’t her trajectory, but it is here that she resolved many questions she had struggled with.
She acknowledges that much has changed. Her generation was sandwiched between the pioneers of Jewish women’s study and the explosion now happening in study opportunities for women.
"It is a book situated more in the Orthodox experience than in any other one. I still am hoping for more dramatic change in the ways women participate in public life in Orthodox communities and circles," she says. "I’m hoping that the book would testify to the honest desire of a woman to participate."
In the first chapter, about her year in Israel, she describes binah as the "that mysterious form of knowledge, never precisely defined, which our ancient source told us inhered in women." Many suggested to her that binah was enough, but Blumberg’s private whisperings to God was, "Teach me more than I need to know. Help me find hokhmah, Wisdom, acquired knowledge. And let the reward for my combined Binah and hokhmah be something other than a good match."
Now, she explains, "I construe is a bit differently now. I have come to see Binah as a capacity to read and to study with creativity and intuition, more like a particular mode of addressing Jewish texts than anything particularly gendered, some capacity to read old texts with new eyes."
Returning to familiar texts anew is the idea behind several new books that offer wisdom, scholarship and insight based on the weekly Torah portions. Each provides a different emphasis, a variant on the conversation with the text, an alternate search for new meanings. Most of the latest books in the genre are penned by men, pointing to the opportunity for more women to share their teachings in this format.
While serving as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Professor Ismar Schorsch wrote weekly commentaries on the Torah portions, which were circulated widely. In "Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries" (Aviv Press), he presents an expanded version of those teachings, which are well written and highly accessible, combining scholarly elements as well as extensive literary references and personal narrative. In his opening Genesis chapter, "A Twice-Told Tale," he cites Rilke and Kant along with midrash, traditional commentaries and the Mesopotamian creation epic.
The writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, are the wellspring for "Gold from the Land of Israel" by Rabbi Chanan Morrison (Urim), featuring insights on the weekly Torah portion based on the teachings of Rav Kook. The book is an important contribution in making Rav Kook’s work accessible in English. Rav Kook, who lived from 1865 to 1935, was a scholar, rabbinic authority, communal leader and poet who was deeply original in his thinking. Rabbi Morrison studied for several years at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, the Jerusalem yeshiva founded by Rav Kook in 1924, and taught in Harrisburg, Pa., before returning to Israel.
"Redemptions: Contemporary Chassidic Essays on the Parsha and the Festivals" by Rabbi Zvi Leshem (Southern Hills Press) doesn’t emphasize the contextual meaning of the text but rather the practical lessons that help in serving God with passion and deep intent. Citing chasidic commentaries and traditional midrash, he presents the chasidic world view, stressing joy, intense emotions, powerful prayer and communal service. Rabbi Leshem, who made aliyah in 1979, leads Congregation Shirat Shlomo in Efrat and directs overseas programs at Nishmat – The Jerusalem Center for Higher Torah Studies for Women, where he teaches Talmud, Jewish law and Jewish thought.
Rabbi Shefa Gold is a leader in Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, and her new book, "The Inner Path to the Promised Land" (Ben Yehudah Press), reflects her interest in spiritual transformation. Her teachings look at the blessings, spiritual challenges and practices related to the weekly Torah portions. Rabbi Gold is a composer and performer of spiritual music and liturgy, and serves as director of C-DEEP: The Center for Devotional, Energy and Ecstatic Practice in Jemez Springs, N.M.
"Eretz Yisrael in the Parashah" by Rabbi Moshe D. Lichtman (Devora) highlights the centrality of the Land of Israel in the weekly Torah portions. He writes in a conversational style, using classic commentaries and midrash, emphasizing the love and yearning for Zion. Rabbi Lichtman made aliyah in 1991, and has taught in several post-high school programs in Israel since then.
"A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary" by Rabbi Israel Drazin (Urim) examines the weekly Torah portions, drawing on philosophy and biblical scholarship, emphasizing reason and knowledge. Promoting teaching and discussion, he includes questions, prevailing views and some counterpoints, and summaries. Rabbi Drazin is a Bible scholar, author of 10 books, a U.S. Army brigadier general, chaplain and lawyer.