Rabbi Lea Mühlstein, 3 November 2017
The responsibility of a difficult legacy
I have found it particularly fascinating to reread Parashat Vayeira this year. As the great feminist Jewish scholar Judith Plaskow points out in The Women’s Torah Commentary: “this extraordinarily rich parashah is filled with violence—not just the obvious and dramatic violence of destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the incipient violence of the binding of Isaac, but also various, more ordinary, forms of violence against women.”
In the midst of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, we hear Lot who is trying to protect his guests from the violence of the people of Sodom offer: “Look — I have two daughters […] let me bring them out for you and do to them as you please. But do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (Genesis 19:8). More shocking than the story itself is the fact that the Biblical text provides no explicit judgment of Lot’s willingness to hand over his daughters to be assaulted and raped.
At the beginning of the next chapter of Genesis, we read the second of two stories of Abraham seeking to pass off his wife Sarah as his sister in order to protect himself. Abimelech, the king of Gerar, seizes Sarah and her potential rape is only averted by God stopping Abimelech from touching her. A similar tale will be repeated once again in relation to Isaac and Rebekah. As Plaskow observes: “The three-fold reiteration of the narrative suggests that it might serve as a paradigm of the situation of Jewish women. The first two male ancestors of the Jews, perceiving themselves as “other” and therefore endangered in foreign lands, use their wives as buffers between themselves and the larger culture. The women become the “others’ other,” the ones whose safety and wellbeing can be sacrificed in order to save the patriarchs’ skin.”
The final example of violence against women in our Torah portion is Sarah’s demand to banish Hagar following the birth of Isaac. Rather than chastising her, God sides with Sarah’s demands telling Abraham to do what she asks of him.
While the stories each stand on their own and raise different difficult questions, what connects them is, of course, the sexualisation of women. The only power that women hold in Biblical times is their sexuality and their fertility. And so women are also rendered powerless by these stories in abuses of sexuality and fertility.
In light of the discussions following the #metoo social media campaign, which has highlighted the prevalence of women facing sexual abuse and harassment in our society, I believe it is crucially important for us to reflect on the sacred texts that we have inherited. What does it mean for us today to read these stories of women being abused without consequence? How can we learn from our ancient tradition without repeating the mistakes of our ancestors?
In her book Daily Life in Biblical Times, the Israeli scholar Dr. Liora Ravid writes: “The voice of the woman in the Bible is a restrained sigh swallowed behind compressed lips. So as much as we may aspire to approach our ancient foremothers, they will forever remain hidden behind the mists of an ocean of time and silence.” Yet, if we want to ensure that women today are seen as something more than their gender and sexuality, we must help to give a voice to the women of our tradition and the women of today.
In section 32 of the Affirmations of Liberal Judaism it says: “We affirm the equal status of men and women in synagogue life. The Liberal Jewish movement has been the pioneer in that respect in Britain. There is no sex segregation in our synagogues. Women and men may lead services, become rabbis and hold any synagogue office.” Yet, there is still more for us to do – we must not rest on our laurels nor should our commitment to gender equality be restricted to the synagogue.
As we mark Jewish Legacy Month, let us not only focus on the money and possessions that we can leave for future generations. Maybe more importantly, let us reflect on the values that we must fight for to ensure that the society that the next generation will inherit is a more just and more equal one. So when we read the numerous stories of violence committed against women in our parashah, let’s make sure that we do not simply ignore them. Instead, we must call out the injustice—in the text and when we see it in the workplace. We must ensure that women’s voices are heard—from the depth of the Torah and during office meetings. And we must pledge to do our bit to change society so that hopefully one day Jews will read those ancient stories without seeing the fate of contemporary women reflected in them. I’m sure you’d agree that that is a legacy worth leaving!
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