Sermon delivered by Aiton Birnbaum on the second day of Rosh Hashana, 2nd Tishrei 5776, 15th September 2015
On the HIGH HOLIDAYS it behooves us to take stock, examine the inventory of our deeds, on the personal level and as a society. One aspect of such a stock-taking would look at the status of various groups in our society. Well a large subgroup in our society, in fact a majority, is the female population. So I will attempt to briefly examine with you the status of women from a Jewish and HIGH HOLIDAYS perspective, without repeating feminist and counter-feminist arguments and clichés.
First, let’s see: Is Judaism egalitarian toward women?
We can look at this from many aspects, let’s focus on our ancient heritage:
Do you know the name of Noah’s wife? Of Abraham’s mother? Do you recall a description of the funeral of Rebecca? Alongside Jacob’s 12 sons, how many of his daughters can you name? Can you name the wives of the sons of Jacob?
To sum up, if take the main Jewish protagonists in Genesis we have 3+13=16 males, and 4+1= 5 females, so 16/21 vs. 5/21.
On to our first leaders: Moses, Joshua – all male
Judges and prophets: a few women: Devorah (Yael), the woman who felled Abimelech, the mother of Samson (wife of Mano’ach), Hulda the prophet, among dozens of Judges and prophets: look at the books of the Bible, Isaiah, the twelve Minor Prophets, etc.
How many Queens among the dozens of Kings of Israel?
In religious leadership: Aaron, Elazar, Pinchas, male down through time, and today, in the orthodox, virtually all Rabbis, Chazanim, Gabais, Torah readers, prayer leaders, who counts in the minyan, who can touch and read the Torah, who sits where in synagogue …
And in Israel today, the small numbers of women in political positions of leadership, in highest level academia, the salaries women make compared to men …
Overall, while lip service and sometimes more is paid to the place of woman, hers is far from equal to that of men in our society, both ancient and modern.
So it is interesting to analyze from this perspective which sections of the Torah the male Rabbis of old (Chazal, here again, do you know any women who rival Rabbi Akiva, or Hillel and Shammai, or Yochanan ben Zakai, or Shimon bar Yochai?) – which sections they chose to be read on the most important religious holidays of the year:
First day ROSH HASHANA: the main protagonists are Sarah and Hagar, the conflict between the two women leading to Sarah demanding that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out of the family. Abraham is not happy about this. And as you may recall, because God’s response to Abraham is so clear-cut and dramatic:
כל אשר תאמר אליך שרה, שמע בקולה
Whatever Sara tells you, do as she says
This is God’s advice, God’s command to Abraham, founder of the Jewish nation. In so many ways our Rabbis tell us to emulate Abraham, inside and out: from circumcision to hospitality; from top to bottom: in his belief and unyielding faith in one God. Shall we not give an ear to God’s command to Abraham on the matter of the place or voice of women in our homes and in society?
Go on to observe what haftorah was chosen for the first day of ROSH HASHANA? Its main protagonists are two women: Chana and Penina. As with Hagar and Sarah, their children (or lack thereof) are the central issue, and God gives both Sara and Chana what they prayed for so long. In the Haftorah, pride of place is given to Chana’s famous prayer, parts of which are recited in the Hallel every festival. What about the men in the story? You know that, unlike other religions, in Judaism you can’t make babies without at least minimal involvement of a man. Well, like Abraham, Chana’s husband Elkana is shown to be caught somewhat helplessly betwixt patish and sadan, between hammer and anvil. And Eli, the High Priest of Israel, is presented as foolishly jumping too quickly to the conclusion that when Chana is prays, silently moving her lips, that she is drunk! (So, by the way, it seems that Chana may have invented silent prayer in Jewish tradition!) In any case, in both dramas, it is the women, Sarah and Chana, who take decisive action.
Now you might say that on the second day, the reading of the Akedah mentions no women. And you would be correct. So allow me a brief aside on this point. Recently my brother Dani was called to testify in Washington before a House of Representatives subcommittee investigating the economic warfare of the BDS movement against Israel and companies like Sodastream. You can see this on the internet if you like. After presenting indisputable evidence on the malevolent activities and tactics of BDS and its supporters, the Chairman asks Dani straight out how he can explain the preposterous double-standard they consistently apply to Israel. Surprisingly, Dani left the question hanging and reverberating in the halls of the House, and made no reply at all. Well, I tell you, his silence was more eloquent, more thunderous, than any reply could have been, and it let the members of the committee draw their own conclusions about the real nature and intent of BDS—which is of course to destroy Israel.
OK, back to the place of women in our tradition and our readings: I would claim that similar to my tale from Washington DC, the silence within the text of the Akedah, its complete omission of Sara, echoes powerfully through time as well. And you may recall how the Rabbis interpret the events. The fact that the very chapter following the Akedah tells of Sara’s death is taken as evidence that she died upon hearing where Abraham had taken her only son, and to what end. Note that Abraham wakes early to take Isaac, without telling Sara, without even asking her what she thought – so he basically kidnapped his son! (Last year I accused Abraham of plotting to commit murder; I fear I left out the kidnapping charge.) He knew full well that Sara would never have agreed to his foolish male idea about what he imagined he heard his male God demand. The sound of the Shofar is as nothing compared to the shout she would have sounded that morning in Beer Sheva. She would have sent old Abraham packing, and without Isaac in tow. So Abraham took the coward’s way out, and avoided her, sneaking away like a thief in the early dawn. And he forgot what God had said, or purposely avoided hearing what Sara would say, which he would have been expected to heed.
We can go on and see that the second day’s haftorah is worded mostly in the form of God speaking to the female personification of Israel. And it contains the famous verses describing the tears of Rachel over her exiled children. I think more songs have been written on those lines than on any other in the Bible. And so we do indeed heed the words of our heroines through time, and especially on the HIGH HOLIDAYS. And on YOM KIPPUR we continue to see the central place of women in the Torah reading, devoted entirely to allowed and disallowed relations with women.
That’s all I wanted to point out in this sermon: the central place given by our tradition to women in the HIGH HOLIDAYS ritual. Let us pray that our women take their proper place of equal status and freedoms in our synagogues and our society, like some of our highly active women in BICA and leading committees and offices of this congregation. That they assume their place with modesty and grace, realizing the great responsibility they have, not only because so much of the education and care of the future generations remains in their hands, but also because men will be open to what they have to contribute. Let their voices be the voice of strength, judgment and assertiveness of Sara, and of the love, compassion and sensitivity of Rachel. And let us men be wise enough to open our ears and our minds, for in listening to God’s advice to Abraham, and by listening to the voice of woman, we become more balanced and complete. And so we become stronger, and can go on, as we pray to go on, children of Abraham and Sara, forever more, Amen.