Torah: Sarah, Rebekah are just two examples of strong Jewish women

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1–25:18

I Kings 1:1–1:31

Like many of our readers, I presume, I grew up surrounded by strong Jewish women. My mother, older sister and grandmothers all played an active role in shaping my personality and perspective on the world around me. We as a Jewish community have benefited from a legacy of active female leadership, the source of which may be found in the Torah and which is especially evident in this week’s Torah and Haftorah readings. The stories of Sarah, Rebekah and, in the Haftorah, Bathsheba, illustrate a pattern of courageous female activism.

The parashah opens with the death and legacy of our matriarch, Sarah, who left her home and family to join in her husband’s journey to found a people and a homeland in the land of Israel. After her death, Sarah’s past decisions continue to guide Abraham throughout his life.

After all, it was Sarah who instructed Abraham to have a child with her maidservant, Hagar. After she gave birth to Isaac, it was Sarah who told Abraham to banish Hagar and her son, Ishmael, into the wilderness, lest they claim all or a fraction of Isaac’s inheritance. Thus the entire scene into which Chayei Sarah opens is of Sarah’s making.

If Abraham is worried about the vacuum of strong female leadership left by Sarah’s death, Rebekah proves to be more than an adequate replacement. Although the ancient well was often a male-dominated site, full of potential for conflict over this vital resource, Rebekah easily and comfortably operates in this environment, even breaking protocol to serve the needs of the foreign servant and his camels.

 Once the servant makes his intention known, Rebekah (like Sarah before her) offers to leave her family and everything she knows to take a chance by heading back East to meet Isaac. Rebekah’s brother, Laban, grants permission but asks that Rebekah stay for 10 days before leaving.

Keep in mind that Laban will use a similar ruse to ensnare Jacob for an additional seven years of servitude for the right to marry Rachel. But Rebekah does not fall for Laban’s delaying tactics and makes the independent choice to leave now, realizing the opportunity may not arise again. If only Jacob had showed such wisdom.

And then there is this week’s Haftorah, in which King David’s son, Adonijah, attempts to wrestle control of David’s kingdom without his father’s blessing.

Into the narrative enters Bathsheba, who alerts David to what is occurring and implores him to declare Solomon as the rightful heir to the throne. Like Abraham and Isaac far before him, David follows his wife’s guidance and thus secures continuity for the kingdom.

So there you have it — Sarah, Rebekah and Bathsheba each illustrate the dynamic of strong female leadership in Jewish tradition. Their stories may be added to those of Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Devorah, Chana, Ruth, Esther and other heroines of the Tanach.

And while it would be a stretch to say that rabbinic literature features a strong tradition of female leadership, it does introduce us to several archetypes of female activism. Perhaps the best known is Bruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir, who is said to have learned 300 halachot (religious laws) in a single day and is even praised for correctly settling halachic disputes.

Bruriah also directs her sage husband toward correct action. When Rabbi Meir prays for the death of local hooligans, Bruriah corrects her husband by reminding him that we are to pray for the cessation of evil and not the death of those who perpetrate evil acts. Meir’s contemporary, Rabbi Akiva, similarly benefits from strong female leadership.

Although his wife, Rachel, is raised in an affluent family, she secretly marries Akiva and consents to a life of poverty so that he may study. Upon returning home after many years, with thousands of students in tow, Akiva offers advice to his students from which we all may benefit: “Let her alone; for what I am, and for what you are, is hers” (Nedarim 50a).

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe is a rabbi at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. He can be reached at jjaffe@emanuelsf.org.