Strong, Savvy Biblical Women; Clueless Men

After my lecture on “Strong Biblical Women” in Bordesholm a woman came up to me and said, “You should write a book about what you just told us.”

I was very touched.

I am not ready to write a book on the subject, but I hope this essay is of interest.

In preparation for this lecture I asked my rabbinic colleagues in a closed forum on Facebook (due to strict confidentiality requirements of the site, I am not referring to any of them by name) to offer an example of a woman they would include if they were giving the lecture. Their suggestions were very helpful, and I am most grateful to them.

I began by offering a quotation that I have chosen to appear at the bottom of on every page on my web site: “Repeatedly in the Bible, it is the woman who ‘gets it’ and the man who is ‘clueless.’

I originally wrote those words in defense of Eve who, “has been maligned for generations for the supposed “fall of man” when in fact; she is – in my view –the heroine of “the elevation of humanity.”

(From Why the Kof? Getting the Best of Rabbi Fuchs?)

I chose to leave Eve and several other very strong women out of my lecture because of the Talmudic lesson I learned from my late Professor Samuel Sandmel many years ago: Tasafta mirubah, lo tasafta,” (B. Rosh Hashanah, 4b)which essentially means, “If you try to do too much, you end up doing nothing at all.”

In the course of a one-hour presentation, that was a vital point to remember.

I began, then, with Rebecca. One may certainly question the way she went about things, but one cannot deny that she had greater insight into what God needed in terms of an heir to the Covenant of Abraham than did her husband Isaac. She acted decisively on her instinct.

Because the story is complex and time was a factor, I did not delve into the character of Tamar and her impact on Judah in the Joseph Story. If I ever should write the book suggested to me, Tamar will receive lengthy treatment as she does in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. (WiIfM? FOiBN)

For time reasons as well, I did not delve, as several suggested I should, into the fascinating case of Zelophehad’s daughters. Their story marks a vital first step in establishing a woman’s right to inherit her family’s property.

For the same reason (and because they too are written about in WiIfM? FOiBN) I only briefly touched on the vital roles played by

six women who made it possible for Moses to stand before Pharaoh to demand the liberation of our people.

Because I was speaking to a church group in Germany I made one exception: I dealt at some length with the role of the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who defied Pharaoh’s decree to kill any Hebrew boys they helped birth. As I point out in WiIfM? FOiBN:

The example of Shiphrah and Puah stand as

a sharp rebuke for those who excuse their

ethical misdeeds with the claim they had no choice—they were simply following orders from their superiors.

Case in point: During the trial of Nazi war criminals

at Nuremburg, Germany, defendant after defendant

attempted to justify his action on the basis that he was just following orders. The courage of Shiphrah and Puah is timeless testimony that “just following orders” is no excuse.


(In the book I cite Nora Levin’s, z’l, example in The Holocaust, pp. 241-244, of the commander of Einsatzgruppe D, Otto Ohlendorf.)


I next spoke about Deborah from the book of Judges. In her time pagan Canaanite forces under the direction of Sisera were vexing Israelite settlements.  At that time there was no nation of Israel, just a loosely organized group of tribes and as individual entities, they were vulnerable to invasion.

Deborah successfully united the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali to thwart the incursions. She summoned Barak, a leading General, but he refused to lead the troops unless Deborah went with him into battle. She was a judge, military leader, prophet and poet, one of the Bile’s strongest characters of either gender.

I also mentioned Samson’s unnamed mother. She received God’s vision that she would bare a son who would begin to redeem the Israelites from the Philistines, but when she told her husband, he was sure they would die. But Manoah’s wife knew better. She was another example of a savvy woman with a clueless husband.

My next example was Hannah, Samuel’s mother. Compared to her Eli, the High Priest at Shiloh was a bumbling fool.

Five Megillot and three are about women.

There are five books of the Bible designated as Megillot(scrolls), Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations Ecclesiastes and Esther, and these are associated with Passover, Shavuot, Tisha B’Av, Sukkot and Purim respectively.

Three of the five Megillot are about very strong women. Purim celebrates the courage of Vashti and Esther. Song of Songs(as per the interpretation, I arrived at when studying Song of Songsin my D.Min program at Vanderbilt Divinity school with the Womanist scholar, Renita Weems) tells of a woman strong enough to resist the blandishments of King Solomon’s harem to follow her shepherd lover.

I concluded my talk with Ruth The story tells of Naomi’s faithfulness and Ruth’s loyalty and the reward she receives to become the great grandmother of King David. David, according to both Jewish and Christian traditions, is to be the ancestor of the Messiah.

Another woman I left out whom several of my colleagues suggested I include was Huldah the Prophetess, who exerted strong influence on King Josiah at the end of the seventh pre-Christian century. Because of my colleagues’ suggestions though I did read up on her and was able to include her in the answer to one of the questions from those who attended.

Again, I left out important women due to time limitations. Still I hope the examples of Rebecca, the six woman who saved Moses’ life, Deborah, Hannah, Samson’s mother, Vashti, Esther, the heroine of Song of Songs, Naomi and Ruth were sufficient to convince participants that far from being unimportant, many biblical women outshine the men around them in terms of leadership ability and perception of what it was God needed them to do. They are important roe models for young women today and an inspiration to all of us.





Ich will gehen!

Kurzkommentar zum Wochenabscnitt Hayye Sahra (Genesis 23:1-25:18)

„Ich will gehen!“ Mit diesen Worten verändert Rebecca – und im weiteren Sinne die Tora – die Richtung der Geschichte der Menschheit.

Abraham ist jetzt alt und weiß, dass die Zukunft des flügge werdenden Bundes, den er mit Gott eingegangen ist, davon abhängt, die richtige Frau für Isaak zu finden.

Er sendet seinen vertrauenswürdigen Diener (den der Midrasch einstimmig mit Eliezer aus Genesis 15 identifizieren) nach Haran und sagt ihm: Finde die richtige Frau und bring sie hierher zurück ins Verheißene Land.

Mit Gottes Hilfe und nach einem genialen Test am Brunnen, wählt Eliezer Rebecca. Er geht dann zu ihrem Bruder und Vormund, Laban, um um ihre Hand anzuhalten. Laban ist einverstanden, aber bevor Rebecca geht, fragt er, ob sie einverstanden ist.

Die Tora mach daraus keine große Sache, aber es ist ein erdbebenartiger Präzedenzfall im jüdischen Recht: Eine Frau kann nicht ohne ihre Zustimmung verheiratet werden.

Der Tora-Abschnitt endet mit den aufschlussreichen Worten: „Und Isaak liebte sie und fand bei ihr Trost nach dem Tod seiner Mutter.“

Nach meiner Erfahrung als Rabbiner bedeutet der Tod eines Elternteils oft großen Stress für eine Ehe. Manchmal ist der Partner einfach nicht in der Lage das Maß des Schmerzes zu erfassen, den der Trauernde fühlt. Manchmal kann er oder sie einfach nicht die richtigen Worte finden, um auf die Bedürfnisse dessen einzugehen, der einen Verlust erlitten hat. Ich habe Ehen deswegen zerbrechen sehen.

Der kurze Satz macht klar, dass ihre Ehe stark war und Rebecca Isaaks Bedürfnisse erfüllt.

Der Tora-Abschnitt der nächsten Woche wird zeigen, dass Rebecca von den beiden bei weitem den stärkeren Charakter hat. Aber diese Unabhängigkeit und Stärke offenbart sich schon in ihrer Antwort (im Hebräischen ein Wort) auf die Frage ihres Bruders: „Bist du damit einverstanden, mit diesem Mann zu gehen und dein Leben weit weg von Zuhause zu führen?“ Sie antwortet: אלך – ay-lech – Ich will gehen!“

Translation: with thanks to Pastor Ursula Sieg

I Will Go

Quick Comment, Parashat Hayye Sarah, (Genesis, Chapters 23:1-25:18)

“I will go.” With these words Rebecca—and by extension the Torah—changed the course of human history.

Abraham is now old and knows the future of the fledgling Covenant he has established with God depends on finding just the right wife for Isaac. He dispatches his trusted servant (whom the Midrash unanimously concludes is Eliezer of Genesis 15) to Haran and says find the right woman and bring her back here to the Promised Land.

With God’s help and after an ingenious test at the well, Eliezer chooses Rebecca. He then goes to her brother and legal guardian, Laban, to ask for her hand. Laban agrees, but before Rebecca leaves, he asks and receives her consent

Torah does not make a big deal of it, but it set an earth shaking legal precedent in Jewish law. A woman cannot be married without her consent.

The episode ends with the instructive words, “And Isaac loved her and found comfort in her after the death of his mother.”

In my experience as a rabbi I have found the death of a parent often imposes great stress on a marriage.

Sometimes he or she is simply not able to respond in a way that meets the acute emotional needs of the one who suffers a loss. I have seen marriages fall apart surrounding this issue.

The last sentence of the story tells us that the marriage was strong, and Rebecca met Isaac’s needs well.

Next week’s portion will reveal that Rebecca was by far the stronger character of the two, but that independence and strength revealed themselves in her (one-word in Hebrew) answer to her brother’s question, “Do you consent to go with this man, and live your life far away from home? She answered, “אלך I will go!”

Trend toward Older Mother’s Is 1000’s of Years Old

The fifth of the seven traditional blessings recited at a Jewish wedding proclaims: “May the (Akarah) barren woman rejoice with happiness in the company of her children.” The blessing is an acknowledgement and an affirmation of the recurring theme in the Hebrew Bible of the woman beyond normal child bearing age who has children. While the term Akarah means “barren woman,” it is used exclusively – and in no fewer than seven cases – in the Hebrew Bible to refer to a woman who has children well beyond the normal child bearing age. The first of these is Sarah, Abraham’s wife and co partner in the sacred Covenant upon which all of Jewish religious thought bases itself. In that Covenant God promises Abraham and Sarah and their descendants: protection, children, permanence as a people and the land of Israel. But those promises are conditional. To merit them we (as God said directly to Abraham) must: “Be a blessing in our lives (Gn 12:2), “Walk in God’s ways and be worthy (Gn 17:1) and fill the world with Tzedakah, “righteousness” and Mishpat,“justice.” (Gn 18: 19) Sarah, of course, feels completely left out because she has no children. In despair, Abraham cries out to God: “What reward can you give me seeing that I shall die childless?” (Gn 15:2). Desperately Sarah invites Abraham to use humanity’s first known fertility procedure–having a child with a surrogate-–so that she can be a mother. She invites Abraham to cohabit with her handmaiden, Hagar who bears Ishmael. Eventually-–at the age of 90-–Sarah herself gives birth to Isaac. Isaac in turn marries Rebecca who is an Akarah for 20 years until she conceives and bears twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob marries four women, but really only loves one, Rachel. And Rachel is also an Akarah for many years before giving birth to Joseph. Three of Judaism’s first four matriarchs, then, did not become mothers until middle age, and in Sarah’s case, well beyond. Leah, who bore children shortly after her marriage, is the only exception. Much later, Samuel, arguably the second most significant figure (behind Moses) in the Hebrew Bible is born to Hannah who is also an Akarah. The (unnamed) mother of Samson, the mighty warrior who delivers Israel from the Philistines is also an Akarah. Finally, the great prophets Elijah and Elisha each invoke God’s help to intervened and help two different women (both identified by the term Akarah) to give birth. Hannah and Samson’s mother share a vital common trait. They are steadfast, understanding and faithful, while the men around them (their respective husbands and Eli the High Priest) are clueless to the meanings of their divine interactions. What modern lessons are we to glean from these disparate but related biblical accounts? The fact that a disproportionate number of the Bible’s great figures are the offspring of an Akarah must be seen as a compliment to women who give birth during middle age or beyond. The many biblical Akarot (plural of Akarah) who give birth is testify to the correlation between desire to have a child and the level of nurture and love that child will receive. We all are all too aware of the many children born almost at random to young women who have neither the emotional maturity or the financial wherewithal, or the family support to become mothers. Often their children are the results of careless “accidents”. The middle aged woman who gives birth, by contrast, almost always does so with great intentionality and desire to become a parent. More often than not the children of such women are eagerly desired, lovingly nurtured and raised in a home where finances are more than adequate to see to the child’s needs. The Bible in its praise of middle aged mothers goes even further. It sees their years of desire and longing as worthy of special reward. They not only give birth, but they “rejoice with happiness in the company of their children” who are destined to play an important role in the history of the Israelite people. (This essay appears as a chapter in Cyma Shapiro’s recently published book: The Zen of Midlife Mothering)