Giving Women a Voice
I did not celebrate my bat mitzvah on parashat Vayera; in fact, I never celebrated it at all. My birthday on 19 Heshvan gives me, as a legitimate birthright, permission to indulge in constant grappling with this incredibly rich and complex text. Yet I have never voiced that connection with a proper celebration of my Jewish coming of age.
As I approached Jewish adulthood my rabbi, Israel Kazis of Congregation Mishkan Tefila, then in Roxbury, phoned me to request that I become the first bat mitzvah in our classic Boston Conservative congregation. As the daughter of one of the few shomer-Shabbat families in the congregation, I could have, by taking that leadership role, quieted communal concerns that this relatively new rite of passage was not halakhic and set the example for those who would follow. But my absolutist view of halakhah, which early adolescence had done nothing to temper, would not allow me to give public religious expression to this momentous move into adulthood. I did not acquiesce in the ceremonial Friday night chanting of the haftarah which was then slowly being introduced for young women in Conservative synagogues. I silenced my own voice.
That may be the reason that among the many things that fascinate me in this parashah are the sounds and silences of its women. There are many women in this text: Sarah, Hagar, Lot’s daughter and his wife, and Rebekah and Reumah. They play important roles in various parts of the narrative, but their voices are often muted or silenced. Sometimes the silence is externally imposed; sometimes it is self-imposed, most often, it is a datum which is not explained in the text.
While the Akedah is perhaps the best known and most complicated part of Vayera, it is not the only place where the woman’s role demands analysis. The silencing of Sarah has already occurred in the first scene, the visit of God’s emissaries to Abraham’s tent and the subsequent annunciation of the birth of a son to Sarah and Abraham. The arrival of these strangers occasions frenetic activity on Abraham’s part. He rushes around, convincing the guests to stay, giving orders to Sarah and to his servant. Both are silent.
Sarah’s moment comes after the meal when she overhears the promise to Abraham of a son to be born to Sarah. Her reaction is unvoiced laughter: “And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment — with my husband so old'” (Genesis 18:12). Even as her laughter is unvoiced, so, too, is her speech. It serves as an interpretation of her laughter. In Sarah’s case, even internal laughter is unacceptable. God challenges her, moving her to deny herself, her thoughts, her emotions. She is on the way to becoming voiceless.
Silenced, women become objects. The next time Sarah acts it is after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Abraham orders her, just before she is taken off to the harem of Abimelekh, king of Gerar, to say that she is his sister, rather than his wife. In this twice-told tale Sarah says nothing. We hear her only through the mouth of Abimelekh, repeating the false line Abraham had told her to use for she, like Lot’s daughters, can be offered to another man by the male who controls her.
It is motherhood which revives speech. Although Abraham has the power to name Yitzhak, we do not hear his words. We do hear Sarah who says: “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh (yitzhak) with me…. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children! Yet I have borne a son in his old age.” (Genesis 21: 6-7). Her maternal joy sings from the text. Yet that joy, her reclaimed laughter, is short-lived. Sarah turns on Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar, and asks that Abraham “cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac” (Genesis 21:9). Sarah’s assumption of power turns her speech against her rival and reduces both Hagar and Ishmael to silent, nameless “other.”
God intervenes, adjudicating the dispute between Sarah and Abraham, who does not want to lose his son Ishmael. God’s sweeping statement of support for Sarah rings through the ages: “…Whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says…” (Genesis 21:12). But, ironically, Sarah speaks no more. In fact, the living Sarah disappears from the text and she is mentioned again only in death. Does the divine seal of approval carry too much responsibility? Does it render her silent? Is her task completed when she ensures her son’s succession to Abraham’s patrimony? Banished to the wilderness, Hagar, too, is silent. She bursts into tears. God, curiously, does not attend to her emotional outburst, but to Ishmael’s. Yet God, both in person and through an angel, supports Hagar and Ishmael.
Sarah’s total lack of involvement in the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, is the culmination of her silencing. Her absence is, as has been noted by readers throughout the ages, stunning. In our day, as in the past, she has been midrashically given speech. One of my favorite midrashim is “Sarah Talks to God” by Lillian Elkin, a contemporary American poet. Elkin’s Sarah confronts God, questioning the divine command and Abraham’s ready identification with God. She concludes:
“But I am a woman and this is my child and my love for him is greater than fear and my sorrow surrounds me with knives and I am bitter in my doubts.”
Contemporary feminism has given women a voice, or many voices. It has allowed us to listen to the silences and hear the women of the past. It gives us a midrashic ear with which we can imagine their words, their feelings, their actions. It also can help us empower the speech of the women of the present and of the future. But the silencing of women has not stopped. There are those within Judaism who would block every opportunity for Jewish women to voice their religious feelings, to sing in praise of God. They would prevent women’s voices from being heard in prayer settings which include both women and men and, at the same time, deny women separate prayer groups. Women also still silence themselves, refusing to speak out, to give public expression to their religious feelings. We must listen for that silence and try to release those voices.
As for me, as a student and a teacher of Jewish text and tradition, and occasional shlihat tsibbur(prayer leader), I sense that a celebration of my bat mitzvah would be redundant at this point. I do thank God daily for the gift of a growing understanding of Judaism which allows me to give voice to my prayer, and to hear the sounds of women’s silence.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,
Anne Lapidus Lerner