HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Encountering God through the Texts of Life
Sue Levi Elwell and Nancy Fuchs Kreimer are the editors of, as well as contributors to, Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives, an anthology of personal essays that discuss the ways that Jewish texts play a role in the authors’ lives. The book is a recent National Jewish Book Award finalist. This interview is published in partnership with the Jewish Book Council.
How did we conceive of our book?
We are two rabbis who have spent our careers sharing our love for Jewish tradition with a wide range of individuals we’ve been privileged to meet and to study with. Long-time friends, we are privileged to be among the first generation of Jewish women who have had access to Jewish texts and Jewish teachers. Our book brings together twenty women rabbis and scholars who have benefited, as we have, from this major change in Jewish life, and each of our contributors shares one part of her own Jewish story with our readers.
How did we select our authors?
We are blessed to live in a time when there are many thoughtful and incisive Jewish women whose stories would open doors and hearts. Selecting our authors was a great joy and a significant challenge, for there are many more talented writers than we could contain in a single volume. We reached out to several women we knew well, and to others whose work in the world of Jewish thought we admired.
Our authors represent a wide spectrum of contemporary Jewish communal “norms,” yet readers may not be immediately aware of what we might label as “denominational” differences. Rather, each of our writers speak from deep engagement with a vibrant and nourishing Judaism, even as individual practice may vary considerably one from another.
The Jewish feminist project of the last forty years has been to add Jewish women’s voices to our textual inheritance and to see that inheritance through new eyes—of interpreters and readers. These essays share twenty particular Jewish stories that contribute to the repair and rebalancing of our tradition.
How are our writers’ relationships with God reflected in their essays?
Our writers’ images and words reflect and explore some of the rich and varied ways Jews think about and write about God: with language new and traditional, as a Source transcendent and immanent, as a God both personal and universal. Many of the writers write of themselves as active God wrestlers, claiming their place alongside our matriarchs and patriarchs.
Rabbi Vivian Mayer, who has spent much of her life repeating the Amidah prayer, writes, “I opened in usual form with the customary salutation, bowing low to position myself before ‘our God and God of our ancestors.’ I named each mother and father with the phrase, ‘God of’ attached to their respective names.” Mayer’s essay explores her intimate relationship with each of the matriarchs, and with those ancestors’ relationships with the Holy One. In her essay, Rabbi Margaret Holub writes, “I have found comfort and clarity in many difficult moments over the years by remembering that God, and not I, is King and Queen of the universe; that this world, with all its complexities, is God’s beautiful world; that human beings, with all our horrors, are created, like the rest of the world, in the divine image.”
Rabbi Amy Eilberg, reflecting on a time when her daughter was battling anorexia, cites the psalmist’s words, “‘God is near to all who call, to all who call upon God in truth” (Psalms 145:18) and continues, “We have the most access to sacred sources of comfort and meaning when we face reality as it is…the pain of this honest grappling…tears us apart, but only through this tearing can healing come.” The theologian Judith Plaskow writes, in her chapter “Wrestling with God and Evil,” that God is not concerned with justice. “This is our task as human beings in the face of an all-embracing God: to affirm the ties that bind us to each other and creation, and to be the justice required for creation to flourish.” The visions and understandings of God in these essays are rich and varied.
What surprised us about the book?
When we began the project, we imagined that our typical reader would be a Jewish woman, seeking some inspiration from Jewish tradition in a relatable form. Indeed, many women readers have told us that these pieces speak to their hearts and, at the same time, open up aspects of Jewish text and teaching that had previously been opaque or unknown to them. A nice surprise has been the men who have also found this book meaningful to them.
What might your book have to say about the pedagogy and curriculum of Jewish studies?
The expanded Jewish literacy since the Enlightenment has opened our tradition to many who, in prior centuries, were dependent on the interpretation of others. We are among the first generation who have the opportunity to encounter Jewish life and Jewish text for ourselves. Just as we now embrace a Jewish historical legacy that includes the contributions of women as well as men, just as we acknowledge that when we read sacred texts we must follow the lead of our teachers and rabbis both ancient and modern who look beyond the immediate, or pshat interpretation of those texts, and delve deeper, we must continue to discover wellsprings of meaning that may have been invisible to previous generations of Jews.
Why should day school professionals read this book?
Because Chapters of the Heart speaks about God:
We know that when we use exclusively male God language, in English, Hebrew and every other language in which Jews pray, we limit our imagination of God. Expanding our theological vocabulary, embracing an expanding number of names for and images of God, is well within our rich tradition. It is our responsibility to expose the next generation to the rich and varied images of God, God’s power, God’s limitations, and the images that our tradition has cherished—and, at times, rejected!
Because Chapters of the Heart models several approaches to Jewish memoir:
This book offers parts of each contributor’s story. We chose the title Chapters of the Heart to reflect the deep and personal narratives shared by each of our writers. Telling—and reading—personal narratives is an essential part of sharing our larger Jewish story. Students who read memoirs, including, perhaps, the Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, the Letters of Etty Hillesum, the Diary of Anne Frank, the memoir of Golda Meir, Letty Pogrebin’s Deborah, Golda, and Me, Naomi Levy’s Talking to God, and Danya Ruttenberg’s Surprised by God, know that words that come from the heart enter the heart. Each of those voices (and many more, of course) makes history come alive for the reader, and can challenge—and change the way the reader, or student, sees the world.
Because Chapters of the Heart reflects and celebrates diversity:
Our contributors represent Jews of different ages and backgrounds, and their diversity is made explicit in the way they share their stories. Jewish schools must teach a rich range of Jewish experiences. We hope that Chapters of the Heart is one of many examples of Jewish lives and choices that will open conversation and provoke lively discussion.
Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer directs the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. email@example.com
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell PhD is the founding director of the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Center and the first rabbinic director of Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project of the Manhattan JCC. firstname.lastname@example.org
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