Extraordinary women

Extraordinary women

Chayei Sara, Genesis 23:1-25:18

This Torah portion is called Chayei Sara for good reason.  Even though the very first verse reports the death of our mother, Sara, it says that she lived, meaning that she did more than exist during her years on Earth. 

Itturei Torah quotes Rav Amiel’s teaching that the righteous, even in their deaths, are deemed to have truly lived. 

And what a life Sara lived!  From leaving home in middle age with Avraham (chapter 12), to grappling with the dangers of Pharaoh and Avimelech, to battling with Hagar for the rightful place of a child who almost never was, Sara truly lived.

Our parsha continues with the story of Rebekah and how she acts, time and time again.

She runs to extend hospitality to Eliezer when he appears at the well.  She gives him water and offers to water all his camels.  Considering that Eliezer may have had 10 camels in tow, she may have had to make 20 to 30 trips to the well to satisfy them, yet she was not deterred.

Rebekah participates in the negotiations over her future, contradicting both her mother and her brother by consenting to go with Eliezer back to Avraham.

And she doesn’t stop there.  Rebekah ascends her own camel.  She alights from it.  Seeing her intended from afar, she covers herself with her scarf.  No male assistance needed.

Our Tanakh is not afraid of powerful women who act in this world instead of being passive objects.  From Sara to Rebekah, from Tamar to Miriam to Deborah, Yet, there are those who believe that women should simply stay at home, have babies, keep house and prepare food for the men in their lives. 

A leading Israeli rabbi, Tzvi Tau, president of Har Homa Yeshiva, was quoted this summer as saying, “Home is the natural habitat for women to express their special tendency … not the domain of social activity.” 

The July 31 edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, reports that Tau issued a treatise in which he argued that too much education for women would “harm the quality of life of the nation.”

To be clear, not all Orthodox authorities teach this.  I personally know some extraordinarily educated Orthodox women.  But Tau’s attitude would explain some of the furor around the recent arrest of Anat Hoffman, a highly educated leader in the battle for civil rights in Israel.  She was arrested, strip searched and jailed for the “crime” of praying the Shema loudly from the women’s section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

It is difficult to believe she committed an infraction worthy of a monetary fine, much less being treated as a common criminal.  Jews all over the world have rallied behind Anat Hoffman to protest her treatment at the hands of the Israeli police. 

Some have defended her arrest, saying that she upset the status quo at the Kotel.  But the women we deem to be heroes from our tradition were precisely the ones who defied the status quo.

I pray that Anat Hoffman never stops saying the Shema, in private and in public.  She is, to my mind, an extraordinary woman, worthy of mention with other great Jewish women who acted in our history.  She is living her Judaism, as did Sarah before her.  I hope she lives long enough to succeed so that no woman will ever be arrested for praying the Shema out loud at the Kotel again.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)