Thursday, January 30, 2014

Wisdom of the Mothers: Book Review of Chapters of the Heart

I became a rabbi twenty-seven years ago in 1987 at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I was in a graduating class of four, two women and two men. Though I think of myself as a pioneer, the Jewish feminist movement was already well underway. By 1987, nearly 200 women had been ordained as rabbis by the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements. Beginning in the early 1970s in North America, Jewish feminism had fostered new books, new rituals, new theology, and new leaders.

A few years ago, I approached a colleague to collaborate on a book that would reflect on what women rabbis had learned over the past forty years. Knowing what it meant to be pioneers, we shared the feeling that we might gather the insights of our colleagues to shed new light on the changing role and life of the rabbi, as lived by women.

My friend was very ill at the time and we never got farther than that one conversation, but I am excited and proud to recommend a brand new book that captures the wisdom of learned Jewish women: Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of our Lives.

The co-editors, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, a Reform leader, and Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, a Reconstructionist scholar, invited friends and colleagues to write a chapter. Many of the authors are rabbis, while others are scholars, teachers and activists. (Full disclosure: I have a personal relationship with both editors and several of the authors.) While I’ve read similar collections that tend to be uneven in content and quality, each chapter of this book is a polished gem, crafted using a Jewish text, idea or ritual as a metaphor for her personal story. I have savored this little book over the past month, taking in each like a full-course meal, hearing stories of married and family life, work and careers, illness and loss, identity and community all flavored with spices from the rich span of the Jewish textual tradition.

In addition to superb editing, Sue and Nancy added an ingredient that helped bring this collection together. They invited the writers to a working retreat in Philadelphia where they all shared their stories before capturing them in print. This struck me as a unique approach to the art of creating a book, echoing the ancient rabbis whose tales and teachings were transcribed in our sacred books: the Mishna, the Talmud and the Midrash.

The title “Chapters of the Heart” (in Hebrew Pirkei Levavot) intentionally mirrors one of those ancient Jewish texts, “Ethics of the Fathers” (Pirke Avot). If Pirke Avot provides lessons for life, Chapters of the Hearts offers lessons from love. Love of our children though they are different from us, love through pain and illness, love following loss. Learning to love ourselves and to be compassionate with our broken world.

This book is yet another link in the chain of tradition that goes back to Pirke Avot.  In the introduction, the editors express a sense of awe and gratitude for this role as the impetus for this new publication:

 “We feel blessed to be among the first generation of Jewish women who have been welcomed into the study of Torah with opportunities for formal Jewish learning (and titles!) our mothers and grandmothers barely imagined. We see ourselves as part of that great chain of tradition and connect ourselves to it, quoting Torah, the rabbis, and each other.”

As another member of that generation, I am also grateful for being part of this chain and for the opportunity to add new and unimagined links to it. This book should stand the test of time as a reflection of the mind and heart of Jewish women taking on the responsibility of transmitting that tradition to the next generation.

**I also want to express my gratitude to the generous HBT member who thoughtfully gave me this book as a birthday gift, and unknowingly, delivered it a day before I was planning to meet the contributors at a book launch in Boston. My copy is now inscribed by the two co-editors as well as my friend, a constant reminder of the constantly unfolding gifts of friendship.  


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