Torah | Affirming women in biblical stories dominated by men

Chayei Sarah
Genesis 23:1-25:18
I Kings 1:1-31

We feminists often are critical of the lens through which Judaism has been passed. Our texts usually come from a male perspective and are addressed to a male audience.

The last of the Ten Commandments, for instance, commands that we shall not covet our neighbor’s house, our neighbor’s animals or slaves, or our neighbor’s wife. Who has a wife? Well, assuming that lesbians probably were not on the radar, we are left only with men.

If our text is a record of what men said to other men, then we might understand why there are derogatory depictions of women and why they are sometimes excluded. Women have to adapt the language if we want to include ourselves.

I imagine that when men get together, they sometimes complain about women. I can imagine that because women do it, too, making gross overgeneralizations about how men think and what men do. If women kept a better record of their conversations, it would contain as many derogatory statements about men as our texts do about women.

At the same time, it is true that women, as a disenfranchised group, were more susceptible to suppression and oppression. That has to be acknowledged. But we make a mistake if we think that the history of Jewish women is simply a history of second-class citizenship. Rather, the problem is that we as a people recorded only the narrow interactions of a segment of the population and not the activities and ideas of the people as a whole. On occasion, though, stories told by men to men included the ways in which women had power and authority, and therefore were responsible for directing our history.

Take for example this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. Abraham sends his trusted servant to the land of his father to find a wife for his son, Isaac. The servant, traditionally thought to be Eliezer, wrestles with the essential attributes of the woman he is seeking. He decides he will ask one of the women to give him water. If she does and if she then waters all of his camels, she will be the right match for Abraham’s son. Eliezer finds Rebekah.

When Rebekah is introduced to us, we are told that she is the daughter of Betuel, son of Milcah, who was the wife of Nahor, brother of Abraham. Why not say daughter of Betuel, son of Nahor? The text identifies Betuel primarily as the son of his mother, not his father. Perhaps Milcah is mentioned first because she is more well known than her husband. Similarly, when Jewish families in Europe started to take family names, some chose to use the name of a woman in the family. Names like “Rosen” and “Bensusan” were adopted because the greater community was familiar with the female heads of the households, not the male ones.

When Eliezer explains why he has come, Rebekah takes the report to her mother’s household. One might assume it was called her mother’s household because her father was not in the picture. However, in the exchange, we do hear Betuel speak. Yet, it is Rebekah’s mother who offers the choice to stay or go. In Rebekah’s family, women had power and influence.

It is no wonder, then, that Rebekah does not hesitate to exercise her power to determine the fate of her family. God speaks to Rebekah directly and tells her what the future will hold. Rebekah knows that Jacob, not Esau, must inherit the blessing for the sake of the covenant, and she does what she must to ensure that happens. In this way, Rebekah is the crucial link between Abraham and Jacob. Rebekah’s wisdom and actions made us who we are today.

The stories, as they have been told, are often skewed. But, when we pay close attention, it is also clear that everyone in the community played a crucial role, even if we don’t hear every perspective and even when names are excluded.

Examining our texts for the evidence of women’s participation in every aspect of communal life helps us gain a better understanding of how we came to be. Moving forward, may we seek to include all voices and perspectives in the stories we record, so the future will more clearly understand who we are.

Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin
is the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland. She can be reached at [email protected].

Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin

Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sinai in Oakland.