Parashat Lech L’cha 5778

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, 27 October 2017

Nehama Leibowitz (C. 20, Israel) writes:

“Ten generations elapsed between Adam and Noah. The descent of man from Adam’s sin to the commission of murder, idolatry and immorality are traced for us till the retribution of the deluge. A further ten generations [of men] elapsed between Noah and Abraham. The sins of men increased after the deluge and the deeds of the mighty hunter Nimrod were followed by the dividing of humanity into languages and nations, till the Almighty decided to single out one particular individual from amongst them, and charged him with the mission of founding a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. This Divine act of singling out one human being has the taint of discrimination and unfair privilige. As R. Yehuda Halevi puts into the mouth of the king of the Kazars in his philisophic classic the Kuzari, “would it not have been better had God given his approval to all men alike?”

In an article in The Guardian (18 October 2017), Suzanne Moore raises the role of patriarchy in relation to the sexual abuse and harassment against women that was endemic in Hollywood; and if we engage in unfettered reflection has existed within many other organisations and more universally in general society. In undeveloped societies the subjugation of women is plain for all to see. Within developed societies such as our own, it takes the dethroning of those who have held power, such as a Saville or Weinstein for a groundswell in addressing issues that societal norms leading to complicity have hitherto buried.

Moore writes: “With no understanding of patriarchy, we are stuck. It is all relative but we can roughly agree some of the features of a patriarchal society and place ourselves on a spectrum from Iceland to Yemen (by some measures the best and worst countries for women to live in). Those features are: a lack of formal or state power (women are not represented in government); women doing all the housework and childcare; negative treatment of female sexuality; women being more likely to face abuse; or being shown in media and popular culture in very limited ways. Then we can see that some societies are more patriarchal than others. The shock is that so-called advanced societies choose patriarchy: look at the election of Donald Trump.”

Unwittingly, Nehama Leibowitz’s words highlight Israelite patriarchy. In the early genealogies of Bereishit and parashat Noach the Torah does acknowledge the begetting of sons and daughters but only to men and only to provide baby-makers for the men. We also have the problem that adam is an unfortunate word for humanity as it is also the name of the first man.

Women in the Torah are largely anonymous either ignored completely or identified as their husband’s wife. Mrs Noah, Mrs Shem, Mrs Ham and Mrs Japheth are acknowledged, not by name but purely to fulfill the same role as the female of each animal species. It is noticeable that the episode we call the Tower of Babel, has a homogenous, perhaps even androgynous set of beings that are nameless, indeed try to make a name for their self. They fail because they are unable to perceive the value of the individual within a society.

The patriarchy of our ancient Israelite texts leads to the early acceptance of polygamy, of Sarah being forcefully taken without permission into the harems of Pharaoh and Avimelech without protest from Abraham (God is the protestor in both cases). I could go on but it leads me to a question:

Would it have all been different if God had made the covenant directly with Sarah, not Abraham?

We can with some justification point to the passages in the Torah that provide protection for women and those who emerge as leaders, judges and prophets such as Miriam, Deborah and Huldah. It is just that even though they are named and there is narrative to embellish their character, they are yet described through their relationship to men. The ‘protections’ given to women are from the paternal powerbase.

Rabbinic Judaism both acknowledges in some passages the problem of an imbalance in gender power and perpetuates it, perhaps unsurprisingly because the rabbis were after all men – the patriarchy. Through Judaism’s central prayer patriarchy is highlighted as we pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and in the development of halacha, patriarchy is systematized in the synagogue, marketplace and home.

Would it have all been different if God had made the covenant directly with Sarah, not Abraham? Whilst I could find no rabbinic literature on this topic, my teacher, Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah observed that in her reading of Genesis 17:15, Sarai was chosen as well as Avram, hence the ‘hey’ added to her name as she becomes Sarah and it is through her son that God’s covenant will be inherited.

Whilst still acknowledging the patriarchy inherent in our society, Liberal Judaism from its outset in 1902 sought to bring gender equality to Judaism. It is not the complete reversal of power structures as depicted in Naomi Alderman’s ‘The Power’ rather it is moving beyond binary power relationships just as we begin to consider life beyond a two-tone, gendered society. Language matters and that is why our current generation of Liberal Judaism prayerbooks, talk of God as Eternal One, not Lord and of humanity, not mankind.

Today, we are on the way to insuring that the covenant is clearly between God, Abraham and Sarah, with Rebekah and Isaac, with Jacob, Leah and Rachel. Women in modern orthodox communities are asking questions regarding inclusion for which answers such as, ‘there is no halachic problem here, we just don’t… our minchag is…’ are unsatisfactory – for they are patriarchal responses. Just as (nearly all) Jews would be horrified by segregation by the nature of our skin, can we still maintain segregation by gender?

In Liberal Judaism, we must remain awake to new revelation, wisdom that comes to us as we live and study Torah as the bedrock of divine awareness; keep provoking a groundswell to address issues patriarchy and other power structures have suppressed.

Share this Thought for the Week