[This week's Toronto Torah is here!]
Last week (Shmot 3:15), HaShem told Moshe to tell the Jewish nation, in language forceful and stirring, “The Gd of your ancestors – the Gd of Avraham, the Gd of Yitzchak, the Gd of Yaakov – has sent me to you. This is My Name forever, and this is the way I will be identified from generation to generation.”
Beyond the oratory, this declaration shaped one of the most controversial berachot in Judaism, the opening berachah of the Amidah. Because Gd self-identifies as “Gd of Avraham, Gd of Yitzchak, Gd of Yaakov,” and because it is in the context of salvation – as is the opening berachah of the Amidah – and because Gd says, “This is the way I will be identified from generation to generation,” that initial berachah identifies Gd as “Gd of Avraham, Gd of Yitzchak, Gd of Yaakov,” to the exclusion of every other leader, male or female, in Jewish history. [See also Pesachim 117b for a related explanation.]
But would that it were this easy.
Already in talmudic times, the gemara [Sanhedrin 107a] wonders why Dovid haMelech was excluded, and today, of course, in a decision meant to promote women’s identification with the davening, various movements have developed alternative versions to include the Matriarchs.
Overlooking the deliberate snubbing of the biblical source for that berachah’s text, I am still disturbed by the implicit suggestion that Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov belong on one side of the mechitzah, and Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah are property of the women’s section. Do we really want to teach our children to emulate only those biblical figures who share their chromosomes? And where does that dichotomy leave people of more vague sexual identity?
Part of the problem is, indeed, a product of feminism, in which women are encouraged to seek out other women for strength and solidarity. This is the same culture that has produced my Rebbetzin's pet peeve: “Women’s Issues” shiurim in Judaism. Is Judaism not one giant women’s issue, as it is one giant men's issue?
But part of the problem is more native to Jewish tradition itself. The reality is that teachers of Judaism have long identified the Matriarchs with women and the Patriarchs with men, holding up each as role models for his/her gender.
Sarah - Bava Metzia 87a uses Bereishit 18:9 to teach that women, specifically, should be private in their conduct.
Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov – Yoma 28b talks about Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as “elders, sitting in study,” and noticeably mentions no women.
And, of course, the story of Adam and Chavah and the Tree of Knowledge is used to teach lessons about the characeristics and responsibilities of men and women.
So, addressing the traditionalists [among whom I am numbered], I must point out: If we are to insist that “Gd of Avraham, Gd of Yitzchak, Gd of Yaakov” is an appropriate invocation for both of women, then we must obligate ourselves to make sure that our children will see these Patriarchs not only as models for men, but as property of all Jews alike.