Shabbat VaYetze: Rediscovering the Power of Leah and Rachel

 In this week’s parashah we read about the “baby wars” between Leah and Rachel as each try to outdo each other in giving their shared husband sons. It’s easy to dismiss as a misogynistic satire of two women fighting for their husband’s attention, but that’s only the top layer of this fascinating story. A closer look offers deeper insights.

 

Consider: Jacob was a follower of his father’s and grandfather’s G-d. But what was the focus of Rachel’s and Leah’s reverence? Note Leah’s words upon the birth of her second son. She exclaims b’oshri! which has been explained as a form of ashrey, “joy”. Leah names her son Asher (Gen. 30.13), and some scholars see a note of thanks to the Goddess Asherah in both the exclamation and the name.

 

Leah and Rachel name their children when they are born. (So does Eve.) When the world is created, G-d brings all the animals to Adam, and he names them. The power of naming is akin to the power of creating; to name something is to bring it fully into existence. When it comes to new human beings, the power of their names in is the mouths of their mothers. 

 

What other powers did our Matriarchs wield, of which no hint has remained in the final redaction of our Torah text? And what else is buried in our Torah text, between the lines, half-hidden, covered over by later re-shapings of meaning and context?

 

My teacher, Dr. Byron Sherwin, taught me that everything a feminist needs to argue against Jewish patriarchy is already there in our ancient sources. One need only know how to look. So let’s look at words and their power in Judaism.

 

As the Psalmist has noted, clumsy human language is not suited to G-d’s praise; yet we, described in Jewish medieval philosophy as “the creature that speaks,” keep trying to name our sense of kedushah, holiness, and its Source. By definition, the One G-d is not defined by borders, by tribal ethnicity, by age or politics or nature; the irony of arrogating kedushah to an exclusive group is that it empties the term of meaning. Here the case of gender is enlightening.  As feminist theologians have pointed out, naming G-d “he” at the expense of the use of the word “she” defines G-d as less than All: and this is the basic definition of idolatry, i.e. revering something less than G-d as G-d.

 

Restriction of kedushah by gender, or by any other means, is not a religious statement; rather, it is an example in antiquity as in modernity of a social expression, or even political use, of the concept of the holiness of G-d. Such definition suits limited purposes. To the extent that feminism stands as a corrective to patriarchy, and leads us toward the equal cherishing of all aspects of creation, it re-captures an ancient cultural weighting of the feminine. Life brings change; cultural perspectives come and go;  each time, we must bring careful thinking about texts we respect and so expect to contain more than meets the eye. Each new challenge, met thoughtfully, can help us find a new balance between opposites that need each other to exist at all. Only the embrace of opposites brings one closer to the One Source of All Being.

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discrimination is so last century

The news that Rev Louie Giglio has withdrawn from the Inauguration because of an inauspicious sermon is both too bad and an encouraging sign. It’s too bad because the Jewish tradition I follow suggests that he should have been given room to atone for words spoken many years ago, and not judged on a position that he may or may not still hold, at least not until he has been given the opportunity to update it. We are all growing spiritual beings, after all, and one learns many things over time. We evolve, as our President has said about his own perspective on marriage equality.

And it’s also an encouraging sign that being gay is becoming a protected status, in our society if not yet under the law. There is a new willingness on the part of our government to express a certain sensitivity to the concerns of gay constituents, and that is a welcome development. One day we might yet become a people equal before the law as well as before God.

The Book of Genesis, which so many “religious” leaders like to quote to their own fancy, is not so easy to rally to the side of those who want to condemn homosexuality. Genesis 1.27 states

“God created the man in his image in the image of God he created him male and female he created them.”

This sentence, which is already a translation of the original Hebrew (and not the only possible translation), is somewhat difficult to understand unless you insert commas. But where to put them? Try this:

“God created the man in his image – in the image of God he created him, male and female – he created them.”

Modern biology has taught us that we are each made up of male and female aspects – we all have both estrogen and testosterone in our hormonal makeup. What if Genesis is expressing this idea, that all of us are both male and female, made up physiologically of both genders, and that gender itself is a spectrum in each one of us? some more male, some more female….a whole shading of gender identities suddenly appears along this speculative spectrum.

At the very least, it doesn’t say “in the image of God, they were created male, white, and heterosexual”. There are many things that the holy texts do not say, but we find what we want to read into them when we need something to divert the public conversation away from thoughtfulness and toward judgments which may or may not be supported by the facts in evidence.

For a long time American society has been laboring under some false impressions about Biblical truth that are more narrowly cultural than transcendently spiritual. In the 21st century we will only make spiritual progress if we are able to open our hearts and ears past assumptions about the text made by others who want to influence us, and toward true hearing with our own ears. The world is upheld through justice, and compassion, and kindness – not through discrimination.