Who Should Listen to Women’s Voices

There is an old Chinese saying: Women hold up half the sky. It would seem that, in this world view, women and their contributions to life are of equal importance to those of men. This does not really speak to the nature of those contributions, if they are the same or different efforts, but that they are equally valued and important to the survival of their community, and of the world.

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we can see that Biblical Judaism also embraced strong and necessary roles for women. In this portion, a pregnant Rebecca speaks to Adonai. Like Sarah before her, Adonai speaks to her and she gets an answer. She is told that she is carrying twins, and told of their different futures. Like Abraham in last week’s portion, Chaya Sarah, Rebecca works with God to make this future happen.

Abraham, if you will recall, was told that his descendants would be given the land of Israel. When it came time to bury Sarah, even though he was offered the land for free, he insisted on buying it. Why did he buy the land? What is given by human beings can be taken away. Abraham bought the land in order, the Rabbis tell us, to establish our right to Eretz Israel. God had said we would be given the land, but Abraham wisely knew that not all people had the same relationship with Adonai. He had to be a partner in creating our right to Israel.

Similarly, and just as importantly, Rebecca acts as a partner with God and takes steps to ensure that the right son is given Isaac’s blessing so that the covenant would flow through him. She advises Jacob on the steps he must take to be sure that he gets the blessing of the firstborn, the blessing that, by birth order, should have gone to Esau. Her efforts, like Abraham’s, were seen as important to the Jewish story.

Today, there are those in Israel who seek to silence women and undermine our participation in both Jewish life and civil society. At the same time, the government of Israel has been a leader in the world in promoting equality for women, and Progressive Judaism, in Israel. The Reform Movement is making women’s equality real in the everyday and sacred lives of women, families, and communities. Boys and girls wear kippot in their schools. Girls learn Torah and Talmud alongside boys, at the same time that they are studying literature, mathematics and science. Men and women are ordained as rabbis, and the dean of the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is a woman.

The struggle at the Kotel has become a flashpoint in the conflict between these two worldviews. There, access to the Kotel (the Western Wall, formerly known as the Wailing Wall) is being mired in gender politics. A mechitza (partition) has been erected. The women’s side is continually reduced. Women’s prayer on the women’s side is increasingly restricted, no kippot, no tallitot, no group prayer, only murmured or silent, not out loud as Jewish prayer has been since Hannah. But, women and their allies are refusing to accept this. The conflict has escalated to the point where Anat Hoffman was arrested last Rosh Chodesh.

This week’s Torah potion should remind all of us that God listens to and speaks to women and that we had an important role in creating our history. If God will listen to us, how can anyone tell us to be silent? If we were partners with God in creating our history, should we not be partners in creating our future? As we struggle for equality at the Kotel, ask yourself, what will you do? What role will you play?

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah, a daily e-mail on a topic of Jewish interest. Sign up now to add 10 minutes of Jewish learning to your life each day!

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Barbara Kavadias

About Barbara Kavadias

Barbara Kavadias, the Acting Executive Director for ARZA: the Reform Israel Fund, was previously the Director of Field Services for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She currently serves on the Board of Kavod v Nichum and chairs the Gamliel Institute. At home she serves on her synagogue’s ritual committee, manages a CSA group, and is the mother of two young adults . Barbara is widely considered a leader in the business of making the world a better place.

3 Responses to “Who Should Listen to Women’s Voices”

  1. avatar

    There are so many outstanding women in the Bible, beside those mentioned in the article, think about Hannah, Deborah who was a judge and Miriam, who was singing and praising G-d.
    It’s really sad that the orthodox establishment in Israel wouldn’t allow these women to do what they did in Biblical times !
    This hatred and bigotry towards women should be condemned by all, not just by The Reform Movement.

  2. avatar

    Nicely said, Barbara! And very persuasive.

    I do like how you have managed to interweave and connect events from past millennia all the way up to current affairs at the Western Wall. How deeply distressing–and backward–that extremists can, and do, restrict female participation in secular and sacred life in Israel, as elsewhere.

    I’d love to hear more from you on this topic.

  3. avatar

    I appreciate your presentation of this subject; just as Sarah and Rivkah acted confidently and forthrightly, I think that is the way for women of today to proceed. With time and positive action, changes will be effected. Without equal acceptance and participation, we will just go around in circles, getting nowhere.

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