Celebrating women and leadership in Jewish tradition

In a rare break from looking at the politics of France, our French blogger celebrates the 11th century Talmudist, Rashi, and his feminist legacy

June 24, 2019 16:01

While President Macron was chuffed by his Renaissance party’s European election result and a welcome improvement in his personal popularity, I travelled to Troyes in the champagne district to join the first edition of “Les Filles de Rachi” (Rashi’s Daughters), a celebration of women and leadership in Jewish Tradition.

Over three days, 20 remarkable women – Modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform - came together to study sacred texts and share life stories.  Rabbis and student rabbis, writers and researchers, sociologists and psychologists, many with multiple specialities arrived from Jerusalem, Los Angeles, New York, London and Paris.  Five chavruta workshops were held on Bible, Talmud, Halacha, Midrash and Spirituality.

For a male observer, the combination of knowledge, character and simplicity of these women was quite overwhelming.  They were not angry, just determined that by the quality of their work they would gradually gain recognition for women’s contributions to Jewish scholarship and take leadership positions in Jewish life without the need for ruse or male sponsorship.

The model for these twenty first century women might well be Berouria, the brilliant first century halachic expert and wife of Rabbi Meir, whose life story was movingly recounted at the opening ceremony at the Troyes town hall.  

Berouria’s exceptional erudition, generous spirit and fearlessness were widely recognised in her time. But her reputation was besmirched by a fake news story, recorded years later but with currency even today, according to which she was tempted into adultery and subsequently committed suicide, a devastating combination of moral failure.  In fact, Berouria’s sin was to have demonstrated intolerable competence in this core field of male expertise.

Rashi’s outstanding wisdom is recorded on almost every double page of the Talmud, in readily identifiable script and on each side of the spine.  Though writing in the second half of the 11th century, his insightful commentary is still the prime reference for Talmudic scholars today. 

Born Salomon ben Isaac, Rashi lived in a Jewish quarter, but not far from the local nobility and gave advice to all, regardless of rank or religion.  His vernacular writings constitute a treasure of Old French vocabulary otherwise lost to history.

Having no sons, Rashi educated his three daughters – Miriam, Rachel and Joheved – two of whom married students of his.  Talmudic exegesis was thus passed to his grandchildren who enriched the Rashi heritage and created the famous Tossafist network of Talmudic schools in France and beyond.

Following a major restoration, “la Maison Rachi “(Rachi’s House) has become a place of worship for the largely Sephardi community in Troyes and a powerful tourist attraction.

Beyond the enchanting sixteenth century atmosphere of thin red bricks and stucco, the Maison Rachi boasts a light-filled sanctuary under a spectacular glass ceiling with fine fishnet metal protection from the sun.  A reception room boasts a wall-sized family tree in illuminated stained glass.  The library contains an interactive table offering answers to biblical questions at the touch of a finger.

Troyes (pronounced like the number “trois”) is a picturesque town only an hour or so from Paris.  Much of its 16th century charm has been preserved and the tourist map and signposts direct you to the Maison Rachi.  But the official town booklet does not (yet) highlight the drawcard this exceptional place of learning represents.  


"Reuven Levi" has been a Paris resident since 1981. He married in the United States and is father of three and grandfather of six. He is an active member of the Jewish Community

June 24, 2019 16:01

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