Old- and Current- Attitudes Toward Women

The stories in the Torah often seem subordinating of women.  One of the two creation stories in Genesis describes Eve as being created from Adam’s rib because he needed a “helper.”  Sarah is depicted as a mostly passive character.  Her voice isn’t heard in the chilling story of the attempted sacrifice of her son Isaac, and her husband Abraham profits materially from his urging her to spend the night with another man.  Isaac does the same to his wife.  Decisions seemed to be made and directions determined largely by men.

That shouldn’t be too surprising.  We’re often tempted to judge the content of Bible stories through the lens of our own times and values, but that would be a mistake.  Ancient Israelite society was male dominated.  Women, for the most part, weren’t granted public or legal standing.  The Jewish law, upheld today by strict observers of Halakha, that women may not serve as witnesses for the completion of a Jewish legal document such as a Ketubah (wedding contract) or Get (divorce contract) is rooted in an obsolete assumption that women shouldn’t have a role in public matters.  Even the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony commonly practiced today is based on a law in the Mishna stipulating that a woman is “acquired” by a man, a sort of property concerning which a man had rights (many non-Orthodox Jews are choosing to make the ceremony more egalitarian).  It’s true that a balanced view of Talmudic laws regarding marriage and divorce would require us to acknowledge that women also had rights and were afforded protection from abuse enshrined in law.  But it’s indisputable that Jewish society from the past was male dominated.

We can object to these historic realities, though we shouldn’t express too much shock about how women were depicted and treated in Bible stories and in the times following the period of the Bible.  The fact is that here in America it wasn’t until 1920 that women were given the right to vote.  And the glass ceiling that prevents women from earning equal pay for equal work still hasn’t been broken.  Attitudes about women from the past that led to the subordination and subjugation of women very much exist today in our world and our nation.

Thus, we shouldn’t be shocked or surprised at the countless #MeToo stories of sexual harassment and abuse finally being shared by women who have quietly suffered at the hands of men who seem to think that their impulses and perverse needs can be fulfilled at their whim at the expense of women.  We need to listen with sensitivity and empathy to their stories of abuse, suffering and coercion, hold perpetrators accountable, and begin to create a culture in which men do not feel a license to dominate and abuse women.

And we need to be sure to emphasize, especially to children, those parts of the Torah that do depict women as smart, decisive and in control of their own lives, their families and their people.  One such character, whom we meet in this week’s Parasha, is Rebecca.  She is consulted before her marriage to Isaac is finalized.  And her character is described as someone in charge and who steers her husband toward an outcome that she thinks is best for her family, even if she can’t count on him to support her.  Rebecca stands out from most other females in the Bible as someone who is a leader.  We need to make sure that her story is told as an example of an empowered female.

We shouldn’t judge too harshly stories from the Bible, as they were written in a time long ago.  But, sadly, some of those ancient attitudes toward women persist today and we must do what needs to be done to make a change in our own times and stop subordination and abuse of women.

Shabbat Shalom,

RABBI COOPER

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