What does Sarah have to say? She and Abraham were introduced at the end of Parashat Noah, and she is a major character in chapters 12-23 of Genesis. But we hear precious little from her. What is she thinking all this time? When her husband takes their family away from not only his homeland, but also hers—does Sarah object or concede? When Abraham suddenly realizes the danger of her beauty and asks of her, “Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you”—does Sarah volunteer for this deception, object to it, or simply keep quiet? In his dreadful speech, Abraham inverts chivalry, asking, or perhaps demanding that his wife endanger herself for his own sake. It works so well, that he does it again, with Abimelekh in Gerar (and it becomes a family tradition with Isaac), emerging each time with wealth and power.
In this terrifying and disturbing story, Sarah’s sexuality is both a threat and a lucrative resource for Abraham, and he skillfully maneuvers the situation for his own benefit. But Sarah is a person, not a property! What is the meaning of her silence? Judy Klitsner (who teaches Bible for JTS RS in our Israel year), discusses this question in her chapter, “Forbidden Fruit and the Quest for Motherhood,” within her book Subversive Sequels. She states, “Sarah’s silence only heightens our discomfort with Abraham’s actions” (138). Abraham uses a pleading tone with Sarah (imri na…) but she is silent. Klitsner writes, “Although Abraham asks for her cooperation in his deception, the expected statement of affirmation does not follow.”
Klitsner reads the story of Sarah and Abraham in Egypt as a sequel to Adam and Eve upon their expulsion from Eden. Sarah’s subservient silence initially seems to fulfill the curse placed on Eve—she is functioning as predicted. But Klitsner shows how the Torah gradually subverts these expectations until we get to the point that Sarah instructs her husband (to drive out his second wife and her son), and despite his initial reluctance, Abraham heeds Sarah’s voice, at God’s own command. Klitsner writes, “Her narrative calls into question any claim that God’s subordination of women in Genesis 3 was fixed and enduring…. By the story’s end we see a great deal of forward motion…. Sarah gains confidence, first hearing more actively and then speaking more clearly than ever before. And in a resounding reversal of the admonishment given to Adam, who had regrettably heeded woman’s voice, the resistant Abraham is commanded by God, “Regarding all that Sarah tells you, heed her voice (Gen. 21:12). (I thank Mary Brett Koplen for the Klitsner reference.)
The ancient rabbis noted this admonition to heed the voice of Sarah, and concluded that she was a prophet (Megillah 14b). This is established in their terms by a play on the name Yiskah (mentioned in Genesis 11:29), which the rabbis are convinced is another name for Sarah. The name could mean that she was “sheltered by the divine spirit.” According to this reading, Sarah is an actor, not an object. Except that in the next phrase, the sages offer an alternative explanation of the name Yiskah—that all who saw her were struck by her beauty. There we have it again—Sarah as the beautiful, desirable and therefore dangerous, sex object.
This is bad enough, but there is also a racist stream of rabbinic commentary about Abraham’s worries regarding Sarah in Egypt. In Midrash Bereshit Rabba an explanation is offered that Abraham worried that the people in Egypt were “dark and ugly” and would be unable to resist Sarah. Rashi cites and amplifies this explanation, but his reading is quickly dismissed by the Spanish exegetes, Abraham ibn Ezra and Ramban. Ibn Ezra says that people’s appearance changes with their location “because of the air” and there is no essential difference between populations. Yet he agrees that Sarah’s appearance would have been exotic in Egypt and attracted attention. My theory is that Rashi, as a Northern European, may have responded more positively to this racist midrash, whereas the Spanish sages, who lived in a more diverse society, would have found it less convincing. Either way, adding a racial angle further degrades this text, earning it a place in the gallery of texts of terror (using Phyllis Trible’s phrase).
All of this discussion among men takes for granted the objectification of women. Sarah’s beauty could be a problem for Abraham, or if he plays his cards right, a big boon. What about Sarah? Does she have any opinion about their descent into Egypt? About the plan to hide her marital status? About the alacrity of her husband to deliver her as a prize to the local hegemon? We can’t really know what Sarah felt, but the Torah tells how she subsequently acted—angry. She declares her anger with Abraham (חמסי עליך), and she torments the Egyptian slave Hagar. I haven’t yet found an exegete who agrees with my theory—perhaps Sarah was “getting back” at the Egyptians by mistreating this Egyptian slave. The trauma that Sarah experienced at the hands of men seems to have been channeled into violent rage against the only person in her power—a less powerful woman.
I’d like to agree with Judy Klitsner that the Torah is building toward a subversion of the earlier narrative of female subjugation. But I am convinced by the thesis offered by Amy Kalmanofsky in her recent book, Gender Play in the Hebrew Bible. Professor Kalmanofsky shows how biblical authors construct narratives in which gender roles are temporarily reversed. Such stories are entertaining, but according to Kalmanofsky, they do not provide a pathway to an egalitarian society. These biblical narratives rather reinforce the patriarchy, describing a world of trouble that follows from female empowerment.
Well, we don’t live in the world of the Bible, or even of the classical rabbis. But it often seems that we haven’t progressed very far from some of their assumptions. In recent weeks the #MeToo campaign and the cascade of reports about celebrities engaging in sexual harassment, whether episodic of systematic, has created an opening for public conversation. As a man I have been shielded from most such experiences, and it is therefore my obligation to listen with extra care to what is shared. We all are responsible to make the circles within which we work and live safer and more supportive of the dignity of all people within them.
The JTS Committee on Gender and Sexuality is an important resource for students and staff who want to work on improving our community.We are participating in a training with the Anti-Violence Project next Thursday, and welcome you to suggest other ways to improve our community. Perhaps in the end we can reclaim Sarah’s voice—the voice of our mother, sister, daughter, spouse and friend—any person who has been treated as an object—and help them become an actor who expresses unique insights with wisdom, courage and conviction.
בראשית פרק יא פסוק כט
וַיִּקַּ֨ח אַבְרָ֧ם וְנָח֛וֹר לָהֶ֖ם נָשִׁ֑ים שֵׁ֤ם אֵֽשֶׁת־אַבְרָם֙ שָׂרָ֔י וְשֵׁ֤ם אֵֽשֶׁת־נָחוֹר֙ מִלְכָּ֔ה בַּת־הָרָ֥ן אֲבִֽי־ מִלְכָּ֖ה וַֽאֲבִ֥י יִסְכָּֽה:
בראשית פרק יב
(יא) וַיְהִ֕י כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הִקְרִ֖יב לָב֣וֹא מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־שָׂרַ֣י אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ הִנֵּה־נָ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֛י אִשָּׁ֥ה יְפַת־ מַרְאֶ֖ה אָֽתְּ: (יב) וְהָיָ֗ה כִּֽי־יִרְא֤וּ אֹתָךְ֙ הַמִּצְרִ֔ים וְאָמְר֖וּ אִשְׁתּ֣וֹ זֹ֑את וְהָרְג֥וּ אֹתִ֖י וְאֹתָ֥ךְ יְחַיּֽוּ: (יג) אִמְרִי־נָ֖א אֲחֹ֣תִי אָ֑תְּ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִֽיטַב־לִ֣י בַעֲבוּרֵ֔ךְ וְחָיְתָ֥ה נַפְשִׁ֖י בִּגְלָלֵֽךְ:
בראשית פרק כא פסוק יב
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֗ם אַל־יֵרַ֤ע בְּעֵינֶ֙יךָ֙ עַל־הַנַּ֣עַר וְעַל־אֲמָתֶ֔ךָ כֹּל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֹּאמַ֥ר אֵלֶ֛יךָ שָׂרָ֖ה שְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹלָ֑הּ כִּ֣י בְיִצְחָ֔ק יִקָּרֵ֥א לְךָ֖ זָֽרַע:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף יד עמוד א
שבע נביאות מאן נינהו? שרה, מרים, דבורה, חנה, אביגיל, חולדה, ואסתר. שרה – דכתיב אבי מלכה ואבי יסכה, ואמר רבי יצחק: יסכה זו שרה. ולמה נקרא שמה יסכה – שסכתה ברוח הקדש, שנאמר כל אשר תאמר אליך שרה שמע בקולה. דבר אחר: יסכה – שהכל סוכין ביופיה.
בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשת לך לך פרשה מ
(יא – יג) ויהי כאשר הקריב לבוא מצרימה וגו’ כל השנים הללו היא עמו ועכשיו הוא אומר לה הנה נא ידעתי כי אשה יפת מראה את, אלא שעל ידי הדרך אדם מתבזה, ר’ עזריא מש’ ר’ יודה בר’ סימון הילכנו בארם נהרים ובארם נחור ולא מצינו אשה יפה כמותך, עכשיו שאנו נכנסים למקום כאורים ושחורים אמרי נא אחותי את למען ייטב לי בעבורך וגו’.
רש”י בראשית פרק יב פסוק יא
ופשוטו של מקרא הנה נא הגיע השעה שיש לדאוג על יפיך, ידעתי זה ימים רבים כי יפת מראה את, ועכשיו אנו באים בין אנשים שחורים ומכוערים, אחיהם של כושים, ולא הורגלו באשה יפה.
אבן עזרא בראשית פרק יב פסוק יא
וטעם הנה נא ידעתי. שהיה כיופי שרה בארצה, רק במצרים וארץ הנגב לא היה כמוה, כי הצורות משתנות בעבור האויר.