Welcome to Parsha Phil! This new weekly project invites thought leaders from varying backgrounds to read the weekly Torah portion through the lens of philanthropy. We hope this space provides new ways of reading the parsha and valuable insights into how our texts teach us — through statements, suggestions or character behavior — about supporting those in need, donating a portion of our income or giving of ourselves in acts of generosity toward our fellow humans.
The Torah portion for this week, Tzav, begins its list of the rules of various sacrifices with one called an “olah” – translated by Everett Fox as “the offering up” sacrifice. Olah is a feminine verbal noun and is identical to the Hebrew word describing a woman who goes up, or ascends. If we take the word out of its sacrificial context, we can recognize the word “olah” as one that is also used to refer to a woman coming up to the Torah for an aliyah. Indeed, the celebration of 100 years of bat mitzvah this Shabbat — which Moving Traditions is co-sponsoring with many other organizations and which is being spearheaded by the Jewish Women’s Archive and The Society for Advancement of Judaism — is called Rise Up.
The connection between the olah in our parsha and the image of a woman rising — or of feminine aspects of the Divine rising — can be found in commentary on the first verses of Tzav in the writings of Nachman of Bretzlov. In the Song of Songs (3:6), the phrase “mi zot olah?” “Who is the one rising up?” refers to a woman rising from the desert in clouds of myrrh and frankincense. Through a Hasidic lens, this verse is connected to the verse in Tzav, and it serves to make the link between the rising up of sacrifices in the ancient world and the rising of prayer in modern times. Rebbe Nachman explains that prayer, when offered with one’s whole heart, leads to the ascension of two feminine aspects of divinity Binah/Intuition and Malchut/Majesty.
One takeaway from this kabbalist teaching is the important idea that various spiritual actions — prayer, reading Torah, participating as a full member of a Jewish community, and yes, giving tzedakah — are all actions that are spiritually elevating for the individual, for the community, for Judaism as a whole, and even for the Divine realm as well.
When Judith Kaplan “rose up” to become a bat mitzvah, she was not just an individual girl rising spiritually by reading Torah and becoming a bat mitzvah. She — and the many who followed in her footsteps and expanded the access of girls and women, and now also non-binary and transgender people, to Torah — was in fact helping Judaism rise to new spiritual heights.
In my own contemporary feminist mystical take on “torat ha-olah” — the feminist Torah of the rising up — Judaism and the world are elevated when our communities are more inclusive of the divine sparks that arise from the diversity of humanity. This rising up takes place particularly when the ideas and ways of being that have been undervalued and often simultaneously gendered as feminine are made more central in our communities and world. We can all recognize — particularly in this very painful and scary time for our world — how much compassion and care need to be elevated, supported, and shared as values by and for people of all genders, hand in hand with values like bravery and courage.
Moving Traditions began our celebration of the 100 years of bat mitzvah last week with a webinar, co-sponsored by The Jewish Education Project, that featured Rabbi Dr. Carole Balin who shared her insight that it was teen girls who led the revolution in American Judaism to gender equality. Reed Kolber, who is currently piloting Moving Traditions’ B- Mitzvah Tzelem group for families of transgender and non-binary teens, later shared movingly about how that revolution is now being carried forward by transgender and non-binary teens looking to create their place in Jewish community.
The power of Jewish teen girls in the years after Judith Kaplan read from her humash in the front of her synagogue (though not on the bimah), was significant. They demanded the right to carry the Torah on Simhat Torah, to read directly from the scroll, to be taken seriously as religious equals in the synagogue and in the Jewish community. This led to significant change in all denominations where bat mitzvah is now celebrated. It also led to expanded access for women and girls — and eventually also to LGBTQ folks — to Jewish learning, scholarship and leadership. It is particularly fitting that this week, in the middle of Women’s History month, the Jewish world is celebrating Jewish leadership and transformation led by teens.
Also this week, Moving Traditions renamed our fellowship for Jewish teen activists in honor of our founding CEO, Deborah Meyer, and our founding board chair, Sally Gottesman; the Meyer Gottesman Kol Koleinu feminist fellowship renaming represents another important element of torat ha-olah, and provides an opportunity to reflect on the role of philanthropy in advancing equity — both within the Jewish community and beyond. This raises up different models of organizational leadership and positions them as equals, recognizing collaboration that crosses lines between funder and professional, lay leader and paid leader. We rise up together, in partnership, side-by-side.
As we read this week the words “zot torat ha-olah” and honor that in our world sacrifice means something very different from what it meant in the biblical context, may we be moved to raise up the power of changemakers — among them philanthropists, recognized organizational leaders and educators and feminist teens of all genders — who honor the memory of Judith Kaplan and her peers, whose names we may not know, who are working collaboratively to make our world more equitable and just, with access to Torah for all those who seek it.
Rabbi Tamara Cohen is the chief program officer of Moving Traditions, where she guides and supports the organization’s strategy, program development, and partnership work. Tamara is the editor of The Journey Continues: The Ma’yan feminist Haggadah and has been engaged in liturgical innovation, anti-racism and LGBTQ work in the Jewish community over the past three decades.