Rachel Leans In
Recent conversations in popular feminism revolve around trying to capture what it means to “have it all,” and, if that’s even possible, how to achieve it. Sheryl Sandberg believes it is possible if women “lean in” to pursue their full career potential, specifically. But Debora Spar says that aiming toward an “all” that includes an uninterrupted successful career and a full family life is an unrealistic expectation that is actually more damaging than inspiring. This conversation is occurring in a particular time and place when many second- and third-wave feminists are reflecting on what the feminist movement of the 1970s helped us achieve and evaluating whether there is more work to be done.
A friend of mine—a similarly minded third-wave feminist who works outside of the home while raising a family—told me that she couldn’t help but feel that when she was leaning into her career (and she could pinpoint specific moments), she was leaning out of her family. She didn’t want to feel bad about that choice—in fact, she was appreciative of the ability to shape her life narrative—but she couldn’t escape the negative connotation of leaning out. What kind of mother, she worried, would choose her career over her family? And what would be the ramifications to her family? The problem with this debate, after all, is that it frames these choices in a rigid dichotomy. You are either leaning in or you are missing out. You either have it all, or your life is lacking in some significant way. In academic feminist discourse, by contrast, the conversation has turned toward agency and whether it is possible to say that women with limited choices—such as those in patriarchal religions—can be said to have agency. In other words, can they lean at all, with any sort of intention? And when they do, what does it look like?
In this week’s parashah, Vayetzei, we see an example of a woman in the Bible leaning in to shape the biblical narrative in a way that actually disrupts her primarily relational role as wife, mother, and daughter. Rachel steals her father’s idols as she and her husband, Jacob, gather their belongings to escape from Laban’s household. Laban, realizing they have escaped and that his idols are missing, chases after his daughters, his son in law, and his grandchildren and performs an almost complete search of everyone’s possessions. Slyly, Rachel places the idols in the cushion of the camel on which she is riding and tells her father that she cannot rise to greet him because “the period of woman is upon me” (Gen. 31:35).
Despite the Torah’s silence on the issue, commentators focus on the fact that Rachel stole the idols. Why would she need the idols? Was she an idol-worshipper like her father? Was she trying to make the idols impure by sitting on them while menstruating? Others look at the fact that this is another example of trickery in a chapter replete with unethical behavior. What interests me, however, is Rachel’s cunning reason for why her father could not search the camel’s cushion.
Struggling with infertility for most of her life, Rachel’s period had always been a source of shame. Presumably menstruating regularly, Rachel continued to have her period month after month as her sister and maidservants’ bellies swelled with new life. Although some may interpret menstrual blood a sign of fertility, many Jewish women who are trying to get pregnant will tell you that monthly visits to the mikveh may at first seem like a new chance at conception, but after a prolonged period of infertility, the mikveh becomes a reminder of their inability to get pregnant. For Rachel, getting her period is a sign of her inability to contribute to the new nation; Rachel’s period keeps her from leaning in to motherhood. When Rachel draws upon her menstruation to deceive her father, however, she reinterprets her menstruation. By saying she is menstruating to prevent her father from seeing the idols, Rachel uses her period as a source of strength and power. Rachel leans in, just not in the way everyone expects her to; because of her actions here, we see that her period does not limit her, but rather creates space for her to act in opposition to societal expectations of women (a revolutionary move!). Rachel refuses to be defined by her inability to get pregnant, thereby refusing to be defined as a mother. She also tricks her father in a major blow to his identity, thus refusing to be defined as his daughter. Finally, because Jacob threatens to kill whoever stole the idols, her lie is also directed toward Jacob; therefore, Rachel also rejects her identity as Jacob’s loyal wife. In this stunning example of subversive action, Rachel leans in and finds agency—a space for her to act on her own.
A parallel story of subversive female agency might also help us see agency in Rachel’s actions. In I Samuel 19, Michal, daughter of Saul and wife to King David, deceives the king’s messengers when they come to look for David by telling them that he is sick in bed. After helping him escape out the window, Michal hides an idol in their bed and covers its head with goat hair. King Saul, unconvinced by Michal’s claim, discovers her lie. She responds with yet another lie, “He said to me: ‘Help me get away or I’ll kill you’” (19:17). The story works as a parallel in a number of ways. First, Michal is also a second daughter in love with the man intended for her sister. Saul first wanted his older daughter, Merab, to marry David, but she was intended to someone else. Michal’s story is also accompanied by a narrative of infertility. In II Samuel 6, Michal rebukes David for dancing with the Torah, and David responds by yelling at her. The text is quick to comment, “So to her dying day Michal daughter of Saul had no children” (6:23). The fact that she uses their marriage bed—which perhaps they never shared—as a tool to fool her father parallels Rachel’s use of menstruation to deceive her father. (That both stories involve idols is perhaps one of the more obvious connections, but because the text is silent on both counts, I will remain so as well.)
In these narratives, we see that despite being limited in their roles and having very little voice in the biblical text, Rachel and Michal create spaces for action. Furthermore, their agency reveals their desire for a countercultural female narrative. One of the largest criticisms of the lean-in / have-it-all debate is that it is solely for women who are fortunate enough to have a career and can decide whether to put their children in day care or stay at home. Most women are not in that financial position and most women have not made it to leadership positions in their fields because there is still significant gender discrimination in the workplace. Worse, still, for many women, there is no choice. Reproductive freedom is still a luxury for many in our country, so having a child necessarily means day care after a short, non–government-mandated maternity leave because not working is not a financially realistic option. Our task, then, is to consider what Rachel’s story contributes to this conversation. What we see in Rachel is a woman who used the tools at her disposal—her menstruation—to manipulate a tense situation and subversively reject the yoke of control that her patriarchal context had placed on her. Let this story help us consider how we can make space and allow for the agency of other women in similar positions.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.