Book Discussion: Houses of Study – A Jewish Woman Among Books



by Peter Shapiro
Read the review of this book in RJ magazine
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Houses of Study –
A Jewish Woman
Among Books
by Ilana M. Blumberg
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Jewish women for almost five thousand seven hundred seventy years have struggled with a tradition that moved them into a life of modesty, early marriage and motherhood. Formal education was forbidden to women, a point brought home in Maggie Anton’s three novels “Rashi’s Daughters I, II and III”. Women inherited wisdom by what was referred to as Binah, a mystical process where they acquired all the knowledge necessary to sustain their family’s needs.   The progressive streams of Judaism recently have opened up their doors to women’s full participation in all aspects of religious and communal life. The author Ilana Blumberg’s journey is that of a woman in love with learning of Judaism whose full participation in the Modern Orthodox world is often blocked by the rules in the sacred texts she reveres.

This may be a story of one woman’s struggle to maintain her commitment to traditional Jewish practice and ideas while deeply appreciating and engaging in secular wisdom and a secular world. It is not hers alone or that of women in general or Orthodox women in particular. But it is the story of men and women alike from all streams of Judaism. Ilana Blumberg, in the intimate and poignant telling of her journey, asks all of us to confront the age old questions:  “How can we maintain Jewish identity and values while living in a secular world?” and “How can we insure that our children and grandchildren will be dedicated to Jewish values and traditions?”

It was interesting to note that the Orthodox communities were experiencing a loss of members who were not committed to following the traditional interpretations of Halakah as was the author, and/or were attracted to a more robust participation in the secular community. Experience tells us that the organized progressive streams of Judaism have been losing members who now refer to themselves as non-affiliated or secular Jews. Our concerns about the future of Judaism and the Reform Movement in particular do not substantially differ from those of the other organized streams of Judaism. The author’s willingness to work for change within the Orthodox community and her non-judgmental acceptance of other peoples’ practice of Judaism teaches me that if Torah is to be central to our lives, albeit with diverse interpretations, it is the obligation of all of us to work in concert to ensure that there continues to be well educated Jews and vibrant Jewish communities.

What resonated with me was the concept of “Torah U’ Madda“, the remarkable synthesis of Jewish learning and Western secular knowledge garnered from ancient times to modern. Three generations of Blumbergs firmly believed and practiced that a well rounded education was the key component to successfully living in both secular and religious societies. What is instructive for us may be found in the old adage familiar to every first year law student “Nemo dat quod non habit“. translated “one can not transfer what one does not own”. Each generation was well educated in sacred text and secular subjects which they passed on together with the love of learning and commitment to Judaism to each successive generation. If we want our children and grandchildren to have their lives centered on Torah we need to possess the knowledge and love of Judaism so we can pass it down to them. I admired Ilana who, knowing all the pitfalls and heartaches, committed her daughter to the struggle and ultimate joy of “Torah U’ Madda“.

 Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken., comes to mind when I think about the author. She elected to remain an Orthodox Jew working in a secular society and, like the protagonist in Frost’s poem elected “to take the one less travelled and that made all the difference”.

“Houses of Study” is a significant Jewish book because it raises sobering and grave questions for our personal reflection and communal discussion. If we are seriously concerned about the future of Judaism and whether our children and grandchildren will be committed Jews, we must ask ourselves the following questions:

1. Have I set the proper examples in words and deeds to inspire and help others take their Judaism seriously?
2. What more can I do to inspire and help others take their Judaism seriously?
3. Has my congregation set the proper examples in words and deed to inspire and help others take their Judaism seriously?
4. What more can my congregation do to inspire and help others take their Judaism seriously?
5. What can the URJ do to inspire and help you and your congregation take Judaism more seriously?

We welcome your thought and comments. Help us continue this conversation.

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