Divrei Torah

D’var Torah – Rosh Hodesh Iyar

On Rosh Hodesh Iyar, I had the honor of delivering the D’var Torah at the conclusion of the Women of the Wall’s monthly service.  Two days earlier, on Shabbat morning, I had the honor of reading Haftarat Machar Hodesh at Moreshet Yisrael, the Masorti Kehilla in the center of Jerusalem.  When a Shabbat immediately precedes a Rosh Hodesh, the magnificent story of the friendship between Jonathan, son of King Saul, and David, the shepherd and musician who is destined to be the ruler of the people, is told.  As I studied the text and mastered the telling, it became clear that the model of friendship embedded in I Samuel, Chapter 20, between these two men, has much relevance for those of us who care deeply about the mission of the Women of the Wall, regardless of our primary place of residence.

Whenever I am in Jerusalem, I make a point of reading Haftarah at Moreshet Yisrael.  As a Masorti Jew, I have found a home at this kehillah in the center of town; it is my “comfort zone,” so to speak.  There, my right to freely express myself as a modern Jewish woman is not only protected but celebrated.  Just as I raise my voice loudly in my kehillah in Cleveland, so I participate fully in all aspects of the service in Jerusalem.  As an American  Jew, I understand how essential freedom of religion is to my spiritual life and seek places in Israel that mirror this democratic ideal.  As a Jewish woman with a second home in Jerusalem, I understand how this essential freedom is denied to women at the one public place that has played a central role in Jewish history and that has sustained Jewish memory for 2,000 years, the Kotel.  Yet, every month, the Women of the Wall bravely challenge the status quo, gathering at the Kotel plaza for Shacharit and Hallel before proceeding to Robinson’s Arch for the Torah reading.  Just as David threatened the status quo, igniting King Saul’s ire against him, WOW does the same, month after month.

In verse 25, we learn that King Saul sits by a wall; similarly, the entrenched rabbinic establishment, through the Jerusalem police, sits by the Wall, every month, monitoring the activities of WOW.  Yet every month, WOW gathers, confronting the establishment, knowing that their actions are for the greater good; similarly, Jonathan went against his father Saul, protecting David from the harm his father, the king, seeks to inflict upon his friend.  It is Jonathan’s deep love for his friend David, and their shared understanding that David is meant to lead the people, that gives Jonathan the courage to devise a plan to save his dear friend.

Like Jonathan, the Israeli women who make up the core of WOW, take a risk every month, to work toward establishing a “kingdom” that balances our core Jewish values with the core democratic values that are embedded in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  As David loved Jonathan, the women who support WOW, appreciate and value the courage and determination of the Israeli women who month after month,  gather to secure and protect our right to religious freedom in the Jewish State.  David went on to become the greatest king in our ancient history; in a not dissimilar fashion, Jews living outside of Israel have had the freedom to develop a Judaism that is resonant with the ideals of modern democratic countries.  It is an irony of history that Jews in the Diaspora have had the freedom to establish vibrant spiritual communities, whereas here in Israel that freedom is denied to the vast majority of Jews.  As David was able to lead the Jewish people to a new era in our history, so have Diaspora Jews been able to cultivate new and exciting forms of religious expression.  Without Jonathan’s courage and determination, however, David would not have survived to become the king; without the existence of the State of Israel and the pride in our Homeland, it is doubtful that we in the Diaspora would be able to accomplish what we have.  Just as the friendship between Jonathan and David secured the future of the Jewish people, so may the friendship between WOW supporters everywhere, ultimately secure new ways of religious expression for the Jewish people within the Jewish State.  May the modern “kingdom of Israel” be one that reflects the values of a Jewish people who have established a modern Jewish democracy in our ancient home.   And finally, may the deep friendship between Jonathan and David continue to inspire a deep friendship between all of us who care passionately about the nature and character of the Jewish State.


Dvar Torah, By Cheryl Birkner Mack

What’s so important about the place where we pray?  For more than 21 years, Women of the Wall have been making the claim that they have a place at the Kotel. Not at the front of the plaza, not in the men’s section, but at the back of the women’s section. When we were a small group, you could walk by us without noticing us, but of course, now with all the support we’ve received since Nofrat’s arrest, our place is bigger.

We battled in court to get the right to daven at the Kotel according to our custom–which for some of us means davening with tallit and tefilin, and for all of us means with wonderful, joyous voices  singing, praying and reading Torah together.

We were offered Robinson’s Arch as the place for our tefila. Robinson’s Arch is beautiful and historic and a wonderful place for davening. So why aren’t we satisfied?

Because for thousands of years the כותל המערבי של בית המקדש (Holy Temple’s Western Wall)
has been the the place of Kedusha (holiness) for our ancestors and our contemporaries. Many people say “the Haredim have taken over the Kotel. Let them have it.” But we say, “It’s not theirs! It’s ours–all of the Jewish people’s!”

In the parsha we read this week VaYetze, Yaakov comes to a place as he flees from his family. What place is that? Rashi says this can only refer to Har Moriah–הר הבית  and later, Yaakov dreams of angels ascending and descending the ladder to heaven. When he wakes up Yaakov says
אכן יש ה’ במקום הזה ואנכי לא ידעתי וירא ויאמר מה נורא המקום הזה
God is in this place and I didn’t know it.

He was awestruck and said “How awesome is this place!”
אין זה כי אם בית אלוקים וזה שער השמים
This is none other than the House of God and this is the gate of Heaven.

In the Talmud, it states that when Yaakov travelled towards Haran and arrived there, Yaakov said “Maybe I have passed the place where my ancestors prayed and I didn’t pray there. The place is     הר המוריה (Har Hamoria) where Avraham prayed.
והוא השדה שהתפלל בו יצחק the field where Yitzhak prayed.

Yaakov saw value in praying in the place where his ancestors prayed, as do we.

Elsewhere in the Gemara it mentions that one who prays on Rosh Hodesh is privileged to see the Shekhina, the divine image of God. But I must tell you that when I daven on Rosh Hodesh at home or even a synagogue I don’t always feel that presence, but when I pray in this place I am often privileged to experience God’s presence.

So with your support we will continue to pray in this place where our ancestors prayed and we will one day pray here with our talitot and tefilin and our sefer Torah.

photo by Tanya Hoffman

photo by Tanya Hoffman

“Chamasi Alecha”: I am Angry at You – What Sarah Really Said to Abraham

By Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut

We dedicate this learning to our new granddaughters: Phyllis’s granddaughter, Lily Diana (Aviva Chaya), and Rivka’s newest granddaughter, Tova Nitzana.

Our founding ancestors are both admirable and flawed. They are chosen by God, but they are also only human beings whose desire for intimacy with the Divine leads to anguish as well as to redemption. Many rabbis have either denied their flaws or tried to justify them. They admire Abraham for his willingness to exile one son and sacrifice the other in the belief that God wanted him to do so. Praise for the Akedah appears throughout our liturgy and the story is read every Rosh Hashana. In contrast, the commentators blame Sarah for her cruelty towards Hagar and Lot for his ungodly, immoral ways.

We propose a radically different approach to these Biblical figures.

The sages, with a few exceptions, such as Ramban on Genesis 12:10, do not blame Abraham for pretending that Sarah is his sister and thus available to both Pharaoh and Abimelech. This deception is viewed as justified, reasonable, because it saves Abraham’s life.

According to Rashi (Genesis 11:29), Sarah and Lot share the same father and are either full or half-siblings. Abraham is both an uncle and a husband to Sarah and an uncle and a father surrogate to Lot. We maintain that what has been considered objectionable in both Sarah and Lot are traits they have actually learned from Abraham, their role model and religious leader. Our purpose is not to downgrade our ancestors. Rather, we wish to wrestle with morally problematic texts. It is not enough to “hold” by previous commentators, learned as they are, but to bring our era’s sensibilities, which includes feminist knowledge, to bear on the text. We are religiously obligated to do so.

Although the Torah does not explain why Abraham is the one whom God chooses, many Midrashic accounts teach that Abraham is the first person to recognize that there is one Creator of the world. Therefore, he tries to destroy idols and worships the one God. Abraham’s capacity to “break” with one past on God’s behalf might be one of the reasons that God chooses him. God perceives that, like Moses and Elijah, Abraham could do this. Abraham is the one who “crosses over,” he is Abraham “ha’ivri,” the man who crosses boundaries, rivers, and who aspires to move from this world to God’s world.

Abraham’s yearning to be God’s intimate compromises his ability to be close to humanity, including his own family. He strives to obey God’s commandments and is even willing to sacrifice his sons when he believes that God desires him to do so. At God’s bidding, and without hesitation, Abraham circumcises himself, i.e. he sacrifices a part of himself; he also circumcises his son Ishmael and other members of his household.

Abraham separates himself from others. He also separates family members from each other. For example, Abraham deprives his father Terach of his grandson by taking Lot, his deceased brother’s son, along with him. Lot is the only living survivor of his father Haran. According to some commentators, (Ibn Ezra on Gen.12:1), Terach lived for another sixty five years in Haran. Perhaps Abraham took Lot along as his surrogate son; perhaps Terach was no longer able to raise this grandson. However, this is also the first time we see Abraham severing a family relationship. It may also be an example of Abraham not following God’s commandment fully. Lot was part of Terach’s household. God directed Abraham to leave his father’s house, not to take it along. Perhaps Abraham’s “adoption” of Lot was also a lesson to Sarah about one’s option to parent through surrogate arrangements.

When Abraham and his retinue (Sarah, Lot, and their servants) first arrive in Canaan,   Abraham nomadically wanders around building altars.  Abraham is not seeking property, livestock or any earthly enrichment; he is only seeking intimacy with God. [Gen 12:7-8].  However, soon after their arrival in Canaan, a famine drives them to Egypt where food is plentiful. Suddenly, Abraham realizes that his wife Sarah is beautiful and as such, might be prey for any powerful man. To save himself, he tells Sarah to pass herself off as his sister. Otherwise, as her husband, he might be killed and Sarah taken anyway.  This strategy turns out to serve Abraham well and puts him in a position to negotiate a “dowry” from Pharaoh when he takes Sarah for himself.

Abraham emerges from this episode a rich man—and in possession of Egyptian servants, which likely included Hagar. When the family leaves Egypt, the first sign of strife emerges amongst this formerly united band. Abraham’s and Lot’s herdsmen squabble. Abraham’s proposed solution is that the two camps should physically separate. In 13:8, he asks Lot to “please” (“na”) separate from me because we are brethren, family, and we do not want controversy to divide us. Abraham couches his request as if he is doing Lot a favor by offering Lot his choice of location. Abraham has already separated Lot from his grandfather and country. Now he is separating Lot from Sarah and from himself. Abraham is a master at separation. Lot now takes his uncle’s suggestion and goes off towards Sodom, where the pasture appears to be better.

The use of the word “na” suggests that Abraham uses this phrase on important occasions and when he tries to convince someone to do something they may not want to do. Abraham uses it when he pleads with God to spare Sodom; and, as we shall see, Lot uses it when he attempts to appease the mob in order to protect the angels. Sarah uses this word as well when she asks Abraham to take Hagar as his concubine so that Sarah will have a child through a surrogate.

What is the real reason behind the separation between Lot and Abraham right after leaving Egypt? Perhaps Lot is upset at the way Abraham sent their relative Sarah to another man. Lot may even be traumatized or disgusted by this act; thus, Lot himself may have been ready and willing to leave Abraham and Sarah. Their relationship is not completely severed; when Lot is taken captive, Abraham races to rescue him. However, Lot never returns to his uncle’s side. Before the destruction of Sodom, the angel suggests to Lot that he flee “to the mountains”   [Gen 19:17] where, according to midrash (Rashi on Gen. 19:17), Abraham resides.  Lot disagrees with the angel and requests a small town in the plains, not in the hills.  [Gen.19: 19, 20].

Despite their physical separation, Lot has already been deeply influenced by his uncle and mentor. When the people of Sodom attempt to sexually use the men, who are really angels, Lot, ever the good host, a trait he may have learned from Abraham, offers them his virgin daughters instead [Gen 19:8]. From where did he get this idea? Perhaps from Abraham! Lot sees his uncle, the man who speaks with God, the man who is consumed with the desire to be intimate with God,   treat his own wife as a possession who can be sexually bartered. Lot imitates Abraham’s behavior when he offers up his own daughters to the mob of Sodom.  Actually, Lot does so in order to protect his guests, not merely to protect himself. This might be one reason Lot was worthy of being saved.

Sarah also learned about separating from family members and about using women sexually/reproductively from her husband’s behavior. Like Abraham, she left home to travel to a strange land. Like Abraham, who offered Sarah to Pharaoh, and like Lot, who offered his daughters to a raging mob, Sarah now offers Hagar to Abraham. However, Sarah does not use Hagar’s sexuality; she is only interested in Hagar’s reproductive capacity.

When we first meet Sarah, she is portrayed as a mostly silent partner to Abraham, an obedient wife. She is alone, childless, and without intimates, except for her two male relatives Abraham and Lot. She travels with Abraham and seems to acquiesce in his handing her over to be sexually used by two other powerful men.   However, the text preserves a possible hint of revolt on her part. The Midrash emphasizes that the first time Abraham offers his wife to another man (Pharaoh), he uses the term “na”, please.  [Gen12:11}. The second time, when he sends her to Avimelech [Gen 20:2 and see Rashi ad loc], Abraham omits “na.” The midrash speculates that this time Abraham had to order Sarah to go. Having once experienced being used as a sexual object, she did not willingly agree to a repeat performance. In addition, in our view, Sarah must have been deeply traumatized i.e. shamed, angered, humiliated, helpless. Modern research and clinical practice describe how trauma victims are often capable of treating some more vulnerable than themselves in a similar manner. Many abusers were, themselves, previously abused.

Upon leaving Egypt, materially enriched, still childless, and without her relative Lot, Sarah may feel more alone than ever. She is desperate and unwilling to wait passively until God provides her with a child. Sarah decides to use her Egyptian maidservant Hagar, one of the reminders of her victimization in Egypt, as a surrogate to provide her with a child. (Here is the precursor to what Lot’s daughters will do). Just as Lot became Abraham’s surrogate son, (perhaps Sarah’s as well), Sarah now wants to have her own surrogate child. Just as Abraham had earlier offered Sarah to Pharaoh, Sarah now offers  Hagar to Abraham.  Let us note that there are other examples of women in the Book of Genesis who initiate sexual activity on their own and through surrogates; their main goal is procreative. (Rachel and Leah, and even Potiphar’s wife who, midrashically, is seen as having had a prophetic dream about having a child with Joseph which is why she tries to seduce him). (Bereshit Rabbah, 85;2).

Sarah’s education about using separation to solve problems is long-lasting, Thus, when Hagar conceives, and becomes haughty towards Sarah [Gen 16:4], Sarah decides to send her away just as Abraham had sent Lot away. When Sarah asks Abraham to send Hagar away, she tells him: [Gen 16: 5]; “Chamasi Alecha.” The wrong done to me is your fault!” (JPS translation). This bitter and angry cry is shocking. It was Sarah’s idea to give Hagar to Abraham as a concubine!  How can she now blame Abraham for having obeyed Sarah’s express order to have a child with Hagar in order that Sarah could “build herself up?”

Sarah’s strong words here represent the first and only time that she expresses her innermost feelings about what Abraham did to her. Here, she finally allows  her deep anger at Abraham’s prior behavior to emerge. Hagar the Egyptian, in a real sense, is part of the reward that Pharaoh gave Abraham for Sarah’s services. Hagar is a constant, living reminder to Sarah of her husband’s mistreatment.

In finally giving expression to her anger, Sarah goes even further, invoking God to judge between herself and her husband. This is the first biblical reference to God as “Judge”. Perhaps Sarah’s conceptualizing of God as Judge inspires in Abraham the idea of God as Supreme Judge of All the Earth, since he subsequently echoes Sarah’s words when arguing with God about Sodom [Gen 18:25].  In this quarrel between husband and wife, Sarah does not even mention Hagar. She refers to Abraham as perpetrator, herself as victim, and God as Judge.

From this heated exchange, we learn that all along Sarah may have been inwardly seething at Abraham’s behavior in Egypt. Perhaps Sarah’s barrenness is due to her unexpressed anger at her husband which may have caused her to stop sleeping with him.

Sarah forces Hagar to flee and she eventually exiles her forever. The first time is when Hagar is pregnant. Sarah “torments” her until Hagar flees. Later, after Yishmael’s problematic behavior unsettles Sarah, she exiles both mother and son from their home—and with God’s agreement. (God has an important but different future in store for Hagar and Yishmael). Here again, we see the ripple effect that Abraham’s behavior has had on his family.  For the first time, Abraham expresses pain about the loss of a relationship; he sees this separation as “very wrong.”  Nonetheless, Abraham listens to God and ever God’s obedient servant, he sends Hagar and Yishmael away.

Of course, God does not instruct Abraham to send Hagar and Yishmael away with nothing to sustain them. But, having heard the word of God, Abraham does not busy himself with giving his son and concubine proper provisions. He just sends them away. We see him blindly following God’s directive and not trying to help their desperate plight. This is the only time that the Torah tells us about Abraham’s inner turmoil regarding Ishmael. We learn nothing of his inner struggle, if he had one, when Sarah taken was taken by two Kings; when he separated from Lot; when he set out to sacrifice his son Isaac. And yet, even if Abraham was pained, despite his great wealth, he sent Hagar and Yishmael into the desert with meager provisions. He did not even provide them with enough water.

What kind of mother was Sarah? We may assume that she was a loving mother to her son Yitzhak. Observing his half-brother Yishmael’s troubling behavior, she worries about Isaac’s spiritual welfare; she sends Yishmael and Hagar away, fearing that Yishmael will have a negative influence over Yitzchak.  After Sarah’s death, when Yitzhak takes his new wife, Rivka, into his tent, we are told that he was at last comforted over the loss of his mother. This confirms that a strong and positive relationship existed between them. Since Issac’s marriage to Rivka took place some time after Sarah’s death, this further indicates that Yitzhak bore a great love for his mother and that his mourning was an extended one. Parenthetically, the relationship between Abraham and Issac does not seem to resemble that between his future grandson Yaacov and his future great-grandson Yosef, which was a far more emotionally attached relationship.

Let us now focus on Abraham.  God sees that Abraham is willing to serve God fully. Abraham’s courageous dialogue with God about God’s ways before the destruction of Sodom signifies the degree of intimacy that Abraham has achieved with God. Abraham is able to ask God to be accountable to the ideal of justice that Abraham has perceived within God. Abraham’s strong sense of of justice leads him to assume that the God he loves represents perfect, Divine Justice, and he holds God up to God’s own ideal. And God, in response to Abraham’s pleading and bargaining,   agrees to lower the threshold of righteous men from fifty to ten.

However, God continues to ‘test” Abraham to see how far a human being is able to rise above his “human” limitations. Will Abraham be willing to sacrifice his son Yitzhak? Abraham has held God to the highest level of morality as the “Judge of all the Earth”—which was originally Sarah’s phrase. Now, God is testing Abraham. Can a human being surpass his humanity and enter angelic territory? And if so, is this something that God wants from humanity? Is this desirable in a God-loving human being? God tests Abraham to see if he can overcome his natural feelings for his son and actually kill him. We believe that Abraham attempts to surpass the limitations of being human—and in so doing, displeases God. Perhaps God does not want human beings to blur the lines between being human and being angels.

Angels pervade the stories of Abraham. Angels have no bodily needs, they do not have family or human attachments, don’t get emotionally involved, have no free will, and are at one with God’s will. Angels are not complex entities nor do they seem to be guided by concepts of morality. Angels can both rescue and destroy—all without exhibiting any emotion. In sending an angel as an intermediary to stop Abraham, perhaps God is instructing Abraham to remain human, not to trespass that boundary; God already has angels who blindly do God’s bidding. An angel can destroy a city without looking back or being turned into a pillar of salt. At the Akedah, the angel says, in effect, that now God sees that you were ready to abandon your humanity for God’s sake. But this is not what God really wants from you. God does not want you to murder innocent family members.

What makes Abraham interesting to God is his complicated humanity. Abraham’s ability to argue with God about the nature of justice e.g. the fate of sinful Sodom seems to please God. Abraham’s failure to argue with God when he is told to abandon Yishmael (without proper provisions) and to slaughter Yitzhak—sons who are totally innocent—contradicts his previous concern with justice, even for sinners.

After the Akedah, Abraham changes radically. God never again addresses Abraham directly. However, while Abraham’s direct connection to God seems to cease. Abraham’s relationships with others flourish. He becomes sensitive to the needs of others. He remarries, sires more children, provides for them during his lifetime, and takes great pains to arrange a proper marriage for Isaac.

However, after the Akedah, Sarah dies. According to midrash (See Rashi ad loc) [Gen 23:2], Sarah’s death may be a direct consequence of Isaac’s near sacrifice. She becomes the real sacrifice. Thus, we learn that those who dare to come too close to God may inadvertently harm and perhaps destroy the lives of their intimates. Sarah is connected to her son; his near death, at the hands of her own husband, kills her.

Abraham comes from another location, (according to Rashi, he was in Be’er Sheva), to bury Sarah in Chevron, where she died. They seem to have been living apart although the text is not explicit as to why. We suggest that the Akedah separated them.  However, Abraham now sets about acquiring a proper burial place for her. He   comes to “mourn” her. The word “to mourn her,”  ‘l’bichota” is written in the Torah with a small ‘bet” which symbolizes, according to Midrash, a small act of mourning, perhaps because Sarah was old, and her death was not viewed by him as a tragedy. (See Rashi ad loc). The fact that they no longer seemed to live together certainly adds to this view.

On the other hand, there is another way to understand this. Abraham pays a lot of money for a burial plot for both her and for their covenantal descendents, thus acknowledging her as his true wife.  He buries her ceremoniously, but afterwards he still weeps for her (lispod leSarah v’libkota). Abraham also now sets about finding a wife for Isaac. He wants to insure that his line with Sarah continues; this is a sign of respect and possibly even love for Sarah. But it may also have been a gesture that Abraham hoped would heal Isaac. Especially so because Abraham may have felt some guilt that his almost murder of Isaac may have resulted in his mother’s death. Finding him a wife may have been an attempt to heal a possible rift between father and son, an unintended consequence of the Akedah.

Now, let us briefly examine Lot’s fate. Just as the Akedah “kills” Sarah, so too, the destruction of Sodom, which includes the deaths of her two married daughters, “kills” Lot’s wife.  She is unable to move forward without looking back. She becomes her salty tears.

As we have seen, Lot did not choose Abraham’s path. In fact, even after Sodom is destroyed, Lot refuses to go “up” to the mountains where Abraham resides. Perhaps Lot has had enough of Abraham’s “godly” ways; perhaps Lot does not wish to be judged as a sinner among tzaddikim. First, Lot chooses a small, out-of-the-way city. Finally, when the region is on fire, (even the plant life has been destroyed), Lot and his two daughters, who believe that they are the only survivors, flee to a cave.

And here, Lot’s daughters, in classic survivor-mode, decide they must procreate. They believe that there are no men left alive other than their father. They act like Sarah did with Hagar, when she used her as a surrogate in order to have a child.  The sisters use their father. Everyone: Sarah, Lot, Lot’s daughters, has learned how to use someone else’s sexuality or procreative capacity from Abraham. But unlike Abraham, who did not take any initiative in changing his childless status and who almost killed his two sons, these sisters tried to ensure that life continues. They see destruction all around them; they witness the deaths of their mother, sisters, brothers-in-law, as well as their entire city.  They act against death, instinctively and boldly.

Unlike Abraham, Lot’s unnamed daughters understand that to be human means to be rooted in this world.  Lot’s daughters choose to fight against the death of humanity. In so doing, they wrest life from death. To do so, they use whatever means they can, and they do so, not only for themselves but ultimately for all humanity. Their father is the “sperm donor” just as Hagar was a “surrogate womb” for Sarah. Lot’s daughters   are not ashamed of what they’ve done. In fact, the elder daughter emphasizes her son’s origin by naming him “Moab,” which means “from the father.”

Centuries later, the elder daughter’s descendant, Ruth the Moabite, becomes King David’s ancestor. According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah   will arise from acts which may seem shocking, even incestuous. Just as Lot’s daughters’ decision to save humanity from what they thought would be extinction, Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law did something similar. She boldly tricked her father-in-law who had forced her into a limbo, childless state, into sleeping with her by pretending to be a prostitute; in this way, she gave birth to twins, one of whom, Peretz, became the ancestor of Boaz, who later marries Ruth.

Choosing life, choosing motherhood, even by desperate or surrogate means, ensures that there is a next generation.

On the first day of Rosh Hashana the rabbis offer us what is perhaps a most subversive critique of the Akedah. After reading about the birth of Isaac, we hear about another childless woman. Centuries later, Hannah’s childlessness and the eventual birth of her son, the future prophet Samuel, illustrates another way of dedicating—not sacrificing—a child to God. Hannah, wishing to thank God for the great gift of her son, does not physically sacrifice Samuel but rather dedicates him to God by presenting him to Eli, the High Priest. She allows his to live in the tabernacle in Shiloh and be mentored by Eli for a life of future service to God. In a charming detail, we learn that Hannah visits him each year, bringing him new garments which she has made for him. Hannah thus demonstrates that there is another way to dedicate a child to God—by allowing him to live.

The rabbis show great wisdom in the way they handle Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Issac and Sarah’s grief about this event. On the second day of Rosh Hashana, we read the story of the Akedah, but we also hear the plaintive cries of the Shofar. A midrash  (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 32.15) teaches that the “tekiot” represent Sarah’s wails. We are therefore presented with two possible approaches to the Akedah. The Torah text appears to elevate Abraham’s act as expressing great devotion to God. However, hearing the Shofar’s wails as Sarah’s crying teaches us that there is another, equally valid way to approach The Akedah. We may praise Abraham, cry with Sarah, or do both.


“V’Keyn Lo Ye’aseh!”: Dina and the Pursuit of Justice for Rape Victims

by Phyllis Chesler
Yavne Minyan

December 13, 2008


Delivered on Shabbat, Dec 13, 2008, at the Yavne Minyan, an Orthodox, egalitarian minyan which meets once a month on the Upper East Side.

Good Shabbos everyone.

I want to focus on five words in this parasha: “Vayomru: Hakizonah ya’aseh et ahotaynu?” (Bereshit 34:31). This is what Shimon and Levi tell their distraught and disapproving father Ya’akov after they have rescued Dina by destroying the city of Shechem—the guilty and the innocent alike—all because its prince has kidnapped and raped their sister Dina. I translate their brief but fiery words this way: Shall we stand idly by while our sister is treated like a prostitute?

It is a question that stands for all time. The question is still here, it awaits an answer from each generation. Shall we stand idly by as women are raped—even as we judge Shimon and Levi harshly for engaging in “overkill”? Do we stand idly by as women are forced into prostitution by dire poverty and abuse, or, like Dina, are kidnapped, forced into marriages against their will, trafficked to foreign countries and chained to brothel walls?

Am I my sisters’ keeper? “Hashomer ahotee anochi?” In a sense, Shimon and Levi have answered God’s question in a way far different than Cain once did.

Rape remains epidemic in our world today. Here on the Upper East Side, in other neighborhoods, and on every continent. South Africa, liberated from apartheid, has the world’s highest rate of sexual violence towards women. In places like Algeria, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Congo, Darfur, and Rwanda, rape has become a weapon of war, not merely a spoil of war. I view the repeated public gang-raping of female children and women in these and other war zones as “gender cleansing.” The international legal community has even decided that such rapes are “war crimes.”

Still, we have not been able to do much to stop such rapes or to bring justice to the victims.

Granted: Shimon and Levi did a terrible thing, a “Ya’aakovian,” tricky thing and yet, most amazingly, they did not kill their sister because she had dishonored her family, had gone out, presumably alone (from which the Sages derive that no Jew should go out alone in a potentially dangerous neighborhood). Dina only did what her great-grandfather Avraham, her grandmother Rivka, and her own mother Leah once did: she comes from a long line of “teitzeiers.”

Yes—and incredibly, Shimon and Levi did not kill the “defiled” Dina; they killed Dina’s rapistinstead—and, for good measure, his entire male family!

As we know, even today, honor killings are rampant in the Middle East and South Asia, mainly among Muslims, and to a lesser extent, among Hindus and Sikhs. This odious custom has increasingly penetrated the West. But here, early on in the Torah, when polygamy, cousin marriage, child marriage, arranged marriage, concubinage, prostitution, and human slavery are taken for granted—this is a rather remarkable thing for Shimon and Levi to have done, is it not?

Women were once expected to marry their rapists. Dina’s brothers do not force her to marry Shechem. Once, women were advised to “keep quiet” about being raped. Shimon and Levi do not keep quiet about their sister’s rape; it is their stated reason for destroying Shechem. Although progress has been made, in our time, when women attempted to have their rapists prosecuted, they were often disbelieved and not treated humanely in the courtroom, where most victims were “raped” again, this time legally. Dina is neither challenged nor disbelieved.

But Dina does remain silent, “hidden” from us. Indeed, according to Nachmanides, the Ramban, the brothers do not let Dina out again, they keep her hidden because she has been “defiled.” “Hidden”—just as the midrash tells us she was hidden by her father Ya’akov in order to prevent Esav from seeing her and wanting to wed her. Some say that Dina’s being kept within is what led to Ya’akov’s troubles, beginning with Dina’s rape. But Leah, who arguably “belonged” to Esav, the older of her first cousins, wept her eyes out until they became “rakot,” gentle, tender—wept in fear that she would have to marry Esav.

But why? Esav is by far a better son to his parents than Ya’akov ever was. Esav stays close to home and does what his parents want. Ya’akov leaves—true, he does what his mother Rivka privately tells him to do—but that means leaving home, lech lecha-ing, moving on, choosing public and religious duty over family responsibility.

Does Dina’s brothers’ action, variously described as “overkill,” “terrorist-like,” “heartless,” “dangerous,” and “vengeful,” make Dina whole?

Ellen Frankel, in The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, presents Dina as a Talmudic commentator. “Rav” Dina notes that “[My brothers] recognized that honor stolen can never be recouped: Hamor’s proposed payment transformed rape into prostitution. The only compensation they [Shimon and Levi] would accept was vengeance. But neither act could compensate me for what I had lost.”

What would? As most feminist therapists know, a rape victim does not “heal” by “forgiving” her attacker. Forgiveness as a path to wholeness is a misguided notion in cases of rape, incest or battery. A rush to forgive often means that the victim is unable or unwilling to acknowledge exactly what has happened, or that she has been harmed by it. Without such acknowledgement one cannot begin the arduous and painful work of healing. In any event, a private, psychological, individual, act of forgiveness does not constitute justice, nor can it prevent the forgiver or others from suffering a similar fate at the hands of the unjudged, unpunished rapist.

Many survivors of rape and torture say that the most lasting harm resides not only in the atrocity itself, but in how others either dealt with it or failed to do so. Survivors are haunted by those who heard the screams but turned their backs, blamed the victim, preached against revenge, but envisioned no justice. As Dr. Judy Herman has written: “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement and remembering.”

Please understand: The Torah and Talmud’s position on rape is complicated, contradictory and, from my point of view, quite misogynistic, e.g. raping a married woman is a capital crime since she is another man’s “property;” but the rape of a single, un-betrothed woman sentences her rapist to a lifetime of marriage to her unless she won’t have him. He must then still pay her father a monetary fine.

Therefore, what Shimon and Levi did was extraordinary both for their time and for the geographical region. It still is today. What can possibly explain what they did?

They explain it this way: “V’kayn lo ye’aseh.” “Rape is not done amongst us.” “Kee nevalah asah B’Yisrael” “It is a sin, an abomination in Israel” (Bereshit 34:7).

Rashi tells us that the nations of the world feared “incest” or other “sexual crimes” as a result of the Flood. I totally agree. Quite simply, the brothers feared that God might destroy the world again because of male sexual violence. They destroyed Shechem in order to defend God’s honor and to protect humanity.

I do not agree with the many honorable feminists who believe that Dina’s brothers ruined it for her, that she really loved Shechem, that he’s a symbol of Palestinian or pagan purity. If Dina really loved Shechem, why would Shechem need to “talk to her heart” (vaydaber al lev hana’arah”)? Shechem only did so after he “took” (vayikach otah), slept with, (vayishkav otah) and tormented or humbled (vay’aneha) her. Only after all this did Shechem’s “soul cleave” to her (vatidbak nafsho) and did he fall in love with her (vaye’ehav et hana’arah).

Where else do we hear the phrase “He talked to her heart”?

In Shoftim, at a time when Israel has no king, we have another example of a man who is described with the exact same words. A concubine (pilegesh) has run away from her master/husband. Perhaps he has abused her. Maybe she just missed her father at home. In any event, this master/husband of the unnamed pilegesh also “vaydabaer al libah”—he sweet-talks her to leave her father’s home in Bethlehem, in the territory of Yehudah.

As we know, her fate is an awful one. As they journey, night falls, and a man offers the couple hospitality for the night. A Sodom and Gomorrah-like male mob demands the man as their sexual sacrifice. The master/husband does not sacrifice himself but rather gives his pelegesh over in Givha to be gang-raped and murdered. Obtaining justice in her case does not involve the destruction of pagan Shechem; it involves the near-destruction of the entire tribe of Binyamin.

Just because a man says he lusts for or even “loves” a woman whom he takes by force does not mean that he really does so or that his “love-lust” will last or that the story will end well.

In Shmuel Bet, we read that Amnon desired his half sister Tamar. He asks her to sleep with him. Tamar echoes exactly what Shimon and Levi say: “Ki lo ye’aseh kayn b’Yisrael, al ta’aseh et hanevalah hazot.” “This is not done in Yisrael; don’t commit this abomination” (II Samuel 13:12). She tells him to go to their father King David and ask for her hand in marriage. Instead, like Shechem, Amnon humbled, tormented, and forced Tamar to sleep with him (Vay’aneha vayishkav otah). Unlike Shechem, immediately thereafter Amnon’s lust turns to hate. This single act of rape, which is Tamar’s undoing, has dire consequences. Avshalom, Tamar’s brother, kills Amnon, David their father mourns, Avshalom foments a rebellion against King David and Avshalom himself is eventually killed.

The sexual mistreatment of Tamar destroys her, King David’s family, and nearly leads to David’s downfall.

Perhaps we might say: In all three instances, the sexual mistreatment of a single woman led to a major catastrophe.

None of this is surprising. God strongly disapproves of rape. It is the reason that God decided to destroy the world with a flood. Remember the language. Just as Shechem took Dina (vayikah otah) in Bereshit 6:2, the sons of God “took” (vayikhu) any woman, any daughter of man, they so chose (Bereshit 6:2).Widespread, indiscriminate rape. Almost immediately, God states: “Lo yadun ruhi b’adam li’olam b’shagam hu basar.” “My spirit will not dwell within or wrestle against myself with humanity forever because man is only flesh and blood” (Bereshit 6:3).

“Lo yadun ruhi”… din, judgment, law—Dina’s very name reminds us that God finds rape repugnant. Rape is not only a crime against humanity; it is also a crime against God. Perhaps this is the reason that God ensures that none of the other pagan cities or tribes rise up against Ya’akov. They suffer no repercussions for the destruction of Shechem: “Vayisa’u vayhi hitat elohim al he’arim asher svivotayhem v’lo radfu aharei bnei Ya’akov.” “And they journeyed and the fear of God was upon the cities that surrounded them and they did not pursue the sons of Ya’akov” (Bereshit 35:5).

Thus, we learn that rape is forbidden. From this we may also conclude that we are obligated to rescue, comfort and obtain justice for a rape victim. Troublingly, Ya’akov, who suffers the loss of Yoseph and the potential loss of Binyamin, is not seen weeping for or even talking to Dina. She remains “hidden,” her father remains “silent.” Surely, we are obliged to bring up our sons so that they do not become rapists or bystanders, nor should our daughters ever blame or shun a rape victim.

In Dina’s story, her brothers do not blame her. They rescue her. May God grant each and every one of us the power to do likewise.

Good Shabbos.


The Pearls of Paradise

by Rivka Haut and Phyllis Chesler

The Jewish Week
November 18, 2008


Midrash Ruth Rabbah [3:4] contains a story about a second-century rabbi’s wife who taught Rebbe — Yehudah HaNasi, redactor of the Mishna — a profound lesson about tzedakah, charity, a subject which is especially pertinent in this week of Chayei Sarah and the American Thanksgiving.

Our story takes place in Tiberius, on the eve of a chag (festival). Rabbi Shimon Bar Halafta, absorbed in his Torah study, has no money to buy food. Told that all employers have just paid their workers, he goes to a grotto and prays to his “Employer” for his wages. Lo, a hand emerges from Heaven and offers him a magnificent pearl. Shimon immediately brings it to his colleague, Rebbe, an extremely wealthy man, who tells him that the jewel is priceless. Rebbe advises him to wait until after the chag, when they can sell it in the marketplace. In the interim, Rebbe lends Shimon money to buy food.

Shimon arrives home with an abundance of food. When he tells his astonished wife where the food came from, she is dismayed and explains that the pearl comes from the canopy that he will sit under in Paradise. Not wanting his canopy to be missing a pearl, she tells her husband he must return the food, the money, and the pearl. Shimon follows her advice and, miraculously, the heavenly hand appears and retrieves the jewel.

Angrily, Rebbe summons her and chastises her for causing pain to so holy a man. Rebbe says, “I will give him one of the pearls from my own canopy in Paradise.”

She rejects his offer: “Don’t you know Resh Lakish’s position on this?” She reminds Rebbe that we each earn our heavenly pearls by our deeds in this world. In Paradise, we can no longer give tzedakah. Rebbe’s promise of generosity in the next world is useless to a hungry pair. Rebbe agrees that she advised her husband correctly.

One might view Shimon’s unnamed wife as mainly concerned with her husband’s honor and with her own reflected glory in Paradise. However, we believe that she was as much interested in this life as in the next one. According to this Midrash, Rebbe did not freely offer Shimon food or a loan. Only when Heaven intervened, and with the pearl as pledge, did Rebbe offer a loan. Rebbe’s generosity was confined to the afterlife. However, according to this wise woman, we are supposed to help people in need in this world; tzedakah cannot be delayed.

Since Shimon’s wife is unnamed, we would like to name her Margalit, “pearl.” Was Reb Margalit a good teacher? Later in Midrash Ruth Rabbah [5:7] (perhaps chronologically later as well), we learn that Rebbe used to drop parched corn while walking along the very path that he knew Shimon would take. This suggests that Rebbe had found a way to give Shimon tzedakah anonymously, without causing Shimon embarrassment.

Rebbe had another lesson to learn about tzedakah. In Baba Batra [8a] we’re told that in a year of drought, Rebbe opened his storehouses, but only for the learned. A scholar entered but, when drilled by Rebbe as to his scholarship, he responded that he was unlearned. Rebbe said: How can I then support you? The man replied: “Support me as you would a dog, as a raven,” whom God supports.

Rebbe gave food to the man but grudgingly, believing that the unlearned brought destruction to the world. However, Rebbe’s students informed their teacher that this man, Rabbi Yonatan Ben-Amram, was actually Rebbe’s own student and certainly a scholar. He denied being a scholar because he refused to use his Torah knowledge for earthly gain. After that, Rebbe opened his storehouses to everyone. We see that even a great scholar like Rebbe still had something to learn from one of his students and from a poor scholar’s wife. Perhaps what made him great was his capacity to learn from everyone.

This year, let us learn from Reb Margalit and Reb Yonatan to celebrate God’s bounty by sharing sustenance with others without delay. In Chayei Sarah, Rivka [Rebecca] does just that. Indeed, when Eliezer asks for water, she quickly draws water for him and then voluntarily draws water for all his camels. This story is repeated four times, which suggests that such generosity not only characterized our foremother Rivka but was also important to God.

This Thanksgiving, let us heed the Torah of Margalit and follow in the footsteps of Rivka. Their lessons may be immediately turned into concrete acts of hesed.