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In order not to mutilate the Torah

· Let us all approach the Scriptures ·

For centuries, in countries in which culture, Christian or Muslim, left its mark on the computation of time, on the landscape, on the customs and on daily existence, the uninterrupted study (limmud) of the Torah has been the way par excellence for the continuity of Jewish life. Indeed the Jews, more than Christians and Muslims, had a vital need to explore their texts, to interpret them and to pass them on; even if their hosts – often their persecutors – knew nothing of the Jewish spiritual life or denied it violently, claiming to reduce it to a dead or obsolete “letter”.

Far from being a closed world off limits, the written text of the Torah was – and still is – inseparable from the oral Torah (Torah shebealpeh), namely from the Torah “that is on the lips” of those who study it and interpret it in a new way. The Talmud, the exegesis of the Midrash and the philosophical and mystical commentaries constitute the vast wealth of the oral Torah. The latter has itself become an immense library, in Hebrew and in Aramaic and then also in other languages. Without it, Judaism would lose its meaning and its power.

This task is fundamental and this life in harmony with study is almost always a prerogative of men: women have had scant access to it. And all this has the twofold pretext that study was a precept (mitzvah) only for men, and that women were not capable of it (a misogynist argument), and that women had a more direct access to true piety (an adulatory argument). Thus imprisoning the female mind in a nature which barred it from the process of study meant that women, until a short time ago, were almost always excluded. In a religion in which study constitutes an important axis, this has also meant their subordination to those who studied, interpreted and legislated in every sphere. Of course, there are women who accept this traditional division of roles and submit to the male words that enjoin them to support their husband, to bring up their children and indeed to work to maintain the family so that the men can devote themselves to study. However, it also happens – and ever more frequently – that they refuse to do so.

The desire to share the world of study with men is not after all merely a question of personal dignity, however legitimate it may be, and it is even more important for women who, in the democratic countries, are citizens equal to men and have often received an education in the secular subjects which is incompatible with a condition of minority in their religion. However, there is another reason.

If it is true that the renewal of the meaning of the verses of the Torah depends on the questions that human beings ask of them, it is likewise true that these questions do not stem from nothing. They come from the difficulties, not only intellectual, encountered by the readers, but also from the trials (suffering, bereavement, misfortunes) and joys (love, birth, success) that the readers are passing through, which they feel and express. And women – as much as men but also in a different way – experience all this.

To wish to distance women from the world of study is therefore to forbid the men who belong to this world to listen to their questions, those which make it possible to explain the meaning of the verses differently. This presupposes that the exchange among men suffices and that they have nothing to learn from female interpretations, which leads to an impoverishment of the oral Torah, indeed to its mutilation and to a lack of interest in its regard. This observation is even more important since young men and women who are educated but know the religious texts only through hearsay or in the form of sclerotic proposals no longer think of turning to them to give their lives some meaning.

Failing to recognize the contribution of women to study means forgetting that the Torah on Mount Sinai was given to all. Where women are integrated into the world of study (Israel, the United States, Europe) the situation did not of course change instantly, as if by magic, but in any case the way was opened to an indispensable dynamism. In addition, that men should learn in turn to listen to the words of women, not as something that would make them inferior but as something that would set them face to face with women, also means contributing to the advent of peace. No peace will be possible among human beings for as long as half of humanity is discredited by men and forced to submit to their words.

Miriam, Moses and Aaron were the three guides of the Jews in the desert (cf. Micah 6:4). Miriam had to watch over the living water of the well destined to quench their thirst. The living water, however, is associated with the words of the Torah. Thus forgetting Miriam’s well means making men thirsty too, although they maintain the contrary. The taam, (taste, savour, meaning) of that water is indispensable to every man and to every woman.

Catherine Chalier




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 27, 2020