Changing the role of women in Jewish life is not exactly what author Maggie Anton had in mind when pursuing her passion of learning Talmud. However, making a positive impact on women all over the world is what she has done with her trilogy, “Rashi’s Daughters.”
Prior to becoming an acclaimed author, Anton was a scientific researcher. She started studying Talmud with women while in her 40s, and became fascinated with one of Judaism's greatest and most progressive scholars, Rabbi Salomon ben Isaac, better known as Rashi.
Her fascination with Rashi grew as she learned; he had no sons, so he taught Torah to his daughters: Joheved, Miriam, and Rachel. Ever the scientist, her curiosity turned to research, and her research turned to writing, and a trio of historical novels, “Rashi's Daughters” was born.
She will discuss her third and final book of the trilogy, “Rashi’s daughters III: Rachel” (Penguin, $15), at Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue’s Sisterhood Donor Luncheon on Sunday, Feb. 7 at 12:30 p.m.
“My goal was to find out about his daughters and did he really teach them Torah?” Anton said in a recent telephone interview.
“The evidence shows women at the time did learn. They did blow the shofar as well as perform circumcisions. They also attended services and read from the Torah.”
Also, because women attended services, they were privy to knowledge, and often ran their own or their husband’s businesses, as many men at the time were traveling merchants, she said.
“It was not uncommon for women at the time to have real political power. There was a different attitude towards women. I was amazed at my findings and wondered why we didn’t know a great deal about this? Women today think we are the first generation to have women in positions of power, but it was happening back in Europe in the 11th century.”
In each of her novels, she explores the life of Rashi’s daughters. In “Rachel,” published in August 2009, she weaves love, the Talmud and sex scenes into a captivating novel.
Focusing on the youngest of the three learned sisters, the book is set during the time of the First Crusade, an extremely dangerous time for the Jewish people. Rachel must choose between the two men she loved — her father and her love of learning or her husband, which requires that she live in Spain, where women were hidden away at home and certainly didn't discuss Talmud.
Anton specifically became interested in studying Talmud because it was more or less off limits to women. She said, “Knowledge is power in Judaism and by knowing the law we can reclaim the power. We don’t have to accept what some may say is the law, we can see for ourselves. Studying Talmud gives you the power to interpret the law.”
She said, “In my books, I include Talmud study. I picked some of the most interesting and exciting areas that I believe most women will find stimulating. I also hope as women read my books, it will inspire them to also study Talmud.”
Cost for the luncheon is $20 for Sisterhood members, $25 for non-members. Books will be available for purchase and signing. For more information or to register, call the synagogue at 262-242-6900.
Masada Siegel lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. She can be reached at Fungirlcorrespondent@gmail.com