Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Sexing of Judaism's Founders

[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.


  1. Good post. Not quite sure what I want to say yet. But good post.

  2. You seem to be assuming that women ought to be saying the Amidah, which not all traditionalists necessarily would agree with. ;D

  3. Tzipporah-

    There's one in every crowd...

  4. In an age when many women learn, looking at the Avot as Torah-learning models, and looking at the immahot as examples for men's modesty (are not men also required to be modest?) might be easier than you might think. On the other hand, I agree that the issue is not merely women looking to women only as role models, but what Jewish feminists like to call preconceived "gender roles" that tradition ascribes to the different sexes.

  5. Reminds me of when I was selected to help coach my daughter's T-ball team. Because the team had both boys and girls, the managers wanted a woman to help coach "for the girls." In reality, I helped the boys at least as much as the girls because I led the children in a different way than the men did.

    Likewise, both men and women are enriched by recognizing the contributions of the patriarchs and the matriarchs. (It doesn't mean we have to insert the matriarchs into the Amidah, but I prefer to translate "Avoteinu" as "our ancestors" rather than "our fathers".)

    Interestingly, I've always seen the patriarchs (and my father) as Jewish role models and only recently come to appreciate the contributions of the matriarchs. I don't think it's particularly productive to extrapolate their strengths/weaknesses and roles to ALL Jewish men and women on the basis of gender alone.

  6. How was Germany and the service on Lufthansa?

  7. Joseph-
    True, but that doesn't fit the actual wording in Chazal. That wording is what makes Sarah property of women, etc.

    Agreed and agreed (on 2nd and 3rd paragraphs)

    No comment

  8. I had to take a look at this post because of the title! All I could think of was the sexing of baby chicks. So, I asked myself, was this a post about the founders' private parts? Hmmmm, intriguing.

    I affiliate Conservative, and wear tallit and lay tefillin, have chanted from the Torah on Shabbat, danced with the Torah, carried it, and was heavily involved in shul life, including the board and minyan. Soooo....

    I am pleased to see the addition of the Matriarchs to the Amidah, not for feminist reasons, but because they played an essential role in bringing about the divine plan. Alone, the patriarchs couldn't have done it. They also possessed qualities like the patriarchs, each had a unique relationship with G-d, and possessed additional qualities and wisdom.

    I also agree, that the 'desexing' (heh) of the patriarchs matters, because the Torah is only on the surface about men and women; in essence it is about souls, spiritual evolution and encounters with G-d.

    I, for example, identify strongly with Abraham in all the things he gave up to follow G-d. On another level I identify with Isaac and his binding. Jacob became Israel and wrestles with G-d; I am there.

    These are strong motifs in the Bible. The women's motifs seem more sexist on one level, but also more complicated and ambiguous. They just don't have the spotlight that the boys do. But they do not matter less and what they bring to our understanding of spiritual struggle. I think that if men cannot identify with the matriarchs as much as I can identify with the patriarchs, you gotta ask why.

    On another level, the Torah is full of archetypes, and in that sense, completely sexless as well, and ever infusing the present and future. Some things don't change.

    IMO, the Torah transcends gender roles because it is ultimately divine and spiritual in nature.

  9. Hi Barefoot,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that there is great value in desexing these role models - indeed, that's the point of the post - but then I go back the other way, because if Torah is to mean something to our lives, as we live them, then it cannot ignore the gender identities we inherit, as well as those we create.

  10. Hi TRH,

    I don't think we disagree about gender identities.

  11. I'm interested to know how women feel about the fact that 95% of the time the main character in movies, TV shows, and even books is a man. Even books by women (such as Harry Potter).

    Looking forward to seeing any answers. Don't hesitate to post, even if your reply will be short or you fear that it will not be interesting.
    (I'm afraid that somebody might not post if they think that their opinion is too simple.)

  12. Michael-
    95%? Really?
    Even if that number were true, though, that wouldn't be the point: The point is that chazal specifically identified aspects of Avraham's behavior as a model for men, and aspects of Sarah's behavior as a model for women.