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Beating Patriarchy At Its Own Game

Besides being “the people of the book,” the Jews have been, at least up until now, a people of the family. The stories in Genesis, that first remarkable book, begin to tell us the history of the Jewish family. These early Biblical stories, rather than being sentimental sermons exalting the joys of Jewish family life, regard the family in a remarkably sophisticated and harsh light.

These early stories shed considerable light on the role of Jewish women living in a male-dominated family setting.

Rachel and Leah are the classic women within a patriarchal society, and their struggles for security, love and meaning are dependent on their husbands. Theirs is the story of “have nots” fighting with each other for the approval of the “haves”: Rachel fights with one traditional female weapon, her beauty, while Leah fights with the other, her fertility. Throughout, they undercut each other, whine and fret, and it is hard to find a less attractive twosome anywhere in the Bible.

By contrast are Lot’s daughters who after Sodom and Gomorah have been destroyed, fear they are left alone on earth, with only an ineffectual father. The two sisters plan together how they will people their world. With remarkable sibling harmony, rarely seen in Genesis, they plan together. They get their father drunk; each then takes her turn lying with him; each gets pregnant, and each satisfies her mission. What is different about these women from the rest of the females in Genesis is that they are totally isolated from their society; they are setting up whatever brave new world they can construct and they are not bound by any traditional female role.

These two pairs of sisters are minor characters, compared to Rebekah. She is the most important and impressive archetype of wife and mother, and illustrates the complex method used by a strong and intelligent woman to cope with Jewish patriarchal society.

Rebekah is clearly no insipid ingenue; she acts, rather than being acted upon, and her actions are vigorous and successful. She talks directly to God, and is answered by Him, rather than checking through her husband. She is no long- suffering stoical martyr, for when she is pregnant with Esau and Jacob, she complains loudly and angrily to God that she cannot bear the pain of the two fighting in her womb. God respects her enough to explain the reason for this and gives her a prophecy of what will come.

Two nations are in your womb Two nations shall issue from your body But one people shall surpass the other and the older shall serve the younger.

There is no mention that Rebekah told this prophecy to Isaac.

The story of Rebekah’s relationship to Isaac disturbed me, when I was growing up in the ’50’s, at the height of the “feminine mystique.” The story is of a strong woman tricking her older, weaker, blind husband, and it is not a pretty one. In fact, we can see her easily in modern dress as the pushy Jewish mother and wife, who dominates and manipulates her man, “wears the pants,” and is the “real power.” Wary and contemptuous of this kind of woman, we label her “castrating.” The Rebekahs of the world make us feel uncomfortable in a different way than the Liliths. Lilith is forced to leave Adam and the garden because she is not male-defined, and refuses to play within the system. Rebekah, on the other hand, is an absolutely traditional wife in a situation that her strength and intelligence tells her is intolerable.

Before Rebekah is even introduced in the Bible, a terrible event has taken place. Abraham, in order to show his devotion to his God, has taken the beloved son and allowed him to be offered as a human sacrifice. This son, Isaac, who will become Rebekah’s husband, was a miracle child born to Sarah, Abraham’s wife, long after menopause. Isaac is the only child she ever conceived, although Abraham has fathered a child by her maidservant. Isaac is Sarah’s joy and raison d’etre. She fights like a tiger for him, even banishing Ishmael, Isaac’s half-brother, in order to protect him.

It appears that Sarah’s marriage has been good. Abraham loved and respected his beautiful wife. Sarah, the first of our foremothers, is presented as a beloved, strong, jealous, possessive woman, who is no shrinking violet.

Yet, at the end of a long and loving marriage, when Abraham, the father of Judaism, is tested by his male God and asked to sacrifice his son, the mother is not even consulted! It is in this omission that Sarah’s powerlessness becomes clear, despite the fact that through her sheer force of personality and beauty, she seems to have exerted considerable unofficial power previously. (It is interesting to note that the Soncino Chumash offers a commentary to the effect that Sarah actually died of the shock of finding out that her son had almost been sacrificed.)

When Rebekah marries Isaac, Sarah is already dead. Isaac is grieving for his mother, and is “comforted of her death” by his marriage to Rebekah. No doubt, Rebekah has heard about Sarah’s strength and beauty from her husband, but she has also heard that, in the most crucial decision ever made concerning Isaac, Sarah was not consulted. Rebekah, like Sarah, is very beautiful. (The beauty of the matriarchs is stressed in Genesis, except for “Leah of the weak eyes,” who pays a heavy price for her unattractiveness.)

Rebekah, like Sarah, has very definite ideas about her children, and like Sarah, she is a tiger protectress. Like Sarah, too, she has no official power, and so when the crucial decision is to be made about her two sons (in her case, it involves the giving of a blessing to only one child), she knows she also will not be consulted.

But Rebekah is an extremely intelligent and resourceful woman, and she has an advantage that Sarah did not have; she has the knowledge of what happened to Sarah! Rebekah is the first Jewish woman who forces herself into events that she is not supposed to be part of. She will not follow Sarah and die of sorrow when she finds out what her husband has done with her favored son, Jacob. Rather than be victim, she will play director.

Her first problem is lack of information. Sarah was not informed, but Rebekah will be. And so she does the first devious act that begins to make the reader uncomfortable: she eavesdrops on her husband. The focus on the Biblical reporting is on Rebekah’s eavesdropping. What is not mentioned is that Rebekah would have had no reason to eavesdrop had Isaac not withheld from her the crucial information as to what he was going to do with her sons. The modern analogy is blaming a wife for sneaking a look at her husband’s bank accounts to see how much money the family has.

Rebekah must also contend with the fact that her older, somewhat senile husband, because he is male, has the power to give the blessing. The point of view in Genesis is extremely interesting. The text seems to indicate that it is Rebekah, rather than Isaac, who has the correct perception as to which son is the appropriate one to receive the blessing and build the Jewish people. It is Jacob, the younger twin brother, the introspective tent-dweller (Rebekah’s favorite) rather than Esau, the crude, impetuous hunter (Issac’s favorite) who is destined for greatness.

Rebekah, through her eavesdropping, hears that Esau has been sent out to get some venison, and, on returning, will receive the blessing. Rebekah now has a number of choices, familiar to wives in a patriarchal society. She can be straightforward to her husband, and hope he will listen to reason. She can try to use the force of her personality to bully, wheedle, charm and convince him that Jacob is the more appropriate recipient of the blessing. From what we know from the text, these two approaches would have failed, for Isaac is devoted to Esau. What Rebekah then does, of course, is work out an elaborate trick, so that her husband will think that Jacob is Esau, and give him the blessing.

Robert Graves and Raphael Patai write, in Hebrew Myths, that the

. . . Jews of rabbinic days . . . held that the fate of the universe hung on their ancestor Jacob’s righteousness as the legitimate heir to God’s promised land. Should they suppress the Esau-Jacob story, or should they agree that. . . conspiracy to rob a brother and deceit of a blind father are justifiable when a man plays for high enough stakes? Unable to accept either alternative, they recast the story: Jacob was bound, they explained, by obedience to his mother, and hated the part she forced on him.

Mothers, of course, are often blamed for their children’s dubious deeds. But if Rebekah is interpreted merely as a scapegoat to relieve editors of the Bible about their patriarch, Jacob, the character of Rebekah loses its force and psychological truth. In fact, in the text, there is a real zest with which Rebekah manages events, an urgency and excitement in her actions.

After Rebekah’s trick is discovered, she continues to direct things beautifully. She tells Jacob to flee and save his life, as she knows Esau wants to kill him. She insists that he flee immediately to her brother, Laben. She then complains to Isaac that Jacob not marry a Hittite woman, and manipulates Isaac into suggesting to Jacob that he should look for a wife in his uncle, Laben’s family. She says nothing to her husband about Esau’s desire to kill his brother; she wants events to proceed with a minimum of conflict at this point, and so they do. Saving beloved males is one of the few straightforward, heroic deeds allowed Jewish women in the Bible. We have for example Miriam saving Moses’ life, Michal saving David, and Rebekah saving Jacob. Thus, a sister saves a brother, a wife saves a husband, and a mother saves a son.

In order to understand the complexity of the Rebekah story we need to look at the content of the actual blessing. Maurice Samuel, in his marvelous essay on Rebekah, aptly called “The Manager,” points out that there are actually three blessings. The third blessing, given knowingly and voluntarily by Isaac to Jacob is, according to Samuel, the only important blessing, for it is this one that mentions the continuance of the Jewish people and the blessing of Abraham, which is what the story is truly about.

My own feeling is that there is a fourth, and still more important blessing. This comes many years after Jacob has fled to his uncle, Laben. He has worked fourteen years for his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and is now eager to reconcile with his brother, Esau, hoping for forgiveness. At this point, a mysterious scene takes place. A man wrestles with Jacob, but cannot best him. Jacob is wounded, but will not let the man, who is actually an angel, go until the angel blesses him. The impressive blessing Jacob now receives is

You shall no longer be spoken of as “Jacob,” but as “Israel,” for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.

It is at this time that Jacob becomes the major patriarch, when he fights alone, demands his own blessing, and has his name changed to “Israel.”

Where then is Rebekah and her grand scene? In retrospect, compared to the magnificence of the lonely fight between the truly adult Jacob and the angel, there is something sadly farcical about a mother dressing her son in sheepskin to trick her blind husband. The more important blessing was given freely to Jacob by Isaac, and the most important one came from Jacob’s own struggle. One can easily picture Jacob’s later embarrassment at having had his mother fight for him, and his pride in the blessing he struggled for himself.

And yet, farce turns into a certain kind of heroism when we see Rebekah’s actions in the context of female powerlessness. The clean, pure struggle of Jacob to become a leader was not open for Rebekah, but the power to change the history of the Jewish people was. For it seems clear from the story that no matter how important the later blessings were, it was Rebekah who, through her actions and interference, started the process whereby Jacob could become the patriarch and the history of the Jewish people could continue.

The Rebekah-Isaac family is not an unfamiliar one today, where the husband appears weak and ineffectual, the wife manipulative and domineering. As daughters; we have tended to feel sorry for our ineffectual fathers, and to dislike our tricky and devious mothers. But what the early Biblical story seems to illustrate is that one must look at where actual power lies, as well as at the contrast between the force of personalities. Isaac was old, blind, easily tricked, but the culture, the religion, the God, gave him the all-important and ultimate decision making. Therefore, if the woman was to assert her intelligence, her vigor, her more correct sense of what needed to be done, deviousness was called for. Rebekah was under no romantic illusion that they could “work it out together”; she understood that the deck was stacked against her, and she fought in the only way she knew how. She received no gratitude from her husband, who must have been angry, and Jacob must have been uncomfortable with the whole event. Esau and she had never gotten along, and she is left lonely, but victorious.

Women are now searching to understand, appreciate, and admire their mothers. It seems to me that a good a place to start in our search is to try to understand Rebekah’s dilemma and the way she coped with it. Trickery is the weapon of the powerless; hopefully, there will cornea time when that weapon is no longer necessary.

Mary C. Schwartz is an Associate Professor at the School of Social Work, State University of New York at Buffalo. Her article “The High Price of ‘Failure” appeared in the premiere issue of Lilith.

An address to a young student
by Gloria Och
I tried to think of a way to bless you today. The traditional blessing is: May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. I thought to myself: Do I really want her to be like Sarah, who, for whatever her reason, chased Hagar and Ishmael into the desert? Or, like Rebeka, who taught her son Jacob to lie to his father and to cheat his twin brother? Should she be like poor weak-eyed Leah who was foisted upon Jacob after he had worked seven years for Rachel, whom he loved? Rachel was beautiful and beloved, but, alas, she died in childbirth, and according to tradition she is spending eternity weeping for her children who are dispersed, refusing to be consoled.

There is Miriam, who loved to dance, but she, like you, had two brothers, and when she gossipped about the wife that Moses had chosen she became leprous.

Next is Deborah—prophet, military leader, judge and poet. The Bible speaks well of her, but the rabbis who wrote the Midrash tell us that she was vain in the manner of women and that she judged under the palm tree because it was not fitting for men to come to her house. God only knows what she would have done to them!

We can go on and on through the Bible and not find a single woman whose life is unscarred by a tragedy which is part of some divine plan, or whose character is presented as one we would want you to emulate.

Of course, everyone’s example of a woman who was outstanding in Talmudic times is Beruriah, wife of Rabbi Meir, a noble woman who would not disturb her husband’s Shabbat to tell him of the terrible death of their two sons. She was a scholar as well. But even her reputation is tainted by tradition; we are taught that her husband tested her by sending one of his students to seduce her. She failed the test and committed suicide. Whether or not the story is true is immaterial. The important thing is that we are not allowed to believe that even Beruriah is without flaw.

Why is this the picture presented of the Jewish woman, supposedly so revered? For one thing, the greatness of the Bible is that people are presented as humans with all their flaws, and not as saints. But, I submit, the problem is also that women didn’t write the books and, we were not the active creators of Jewish history.

Now the tide has turned. You and your friends are being educated in exactly the same manner as your male classmates, not so that you can stand up at the bimah and do exactly what they do for Bar Mitzvah. That is not a reason for opening a Hebrew day school. Our dream is greater than that! Your job now is to study our past and to chart our future. In hundreds of years from now when people study the Jewish community of the 20th Century, let them not ask about our times as we do of other periods of Jewish history, “But what did the women do?” You must help not only to write the history, but you must be an equal partner in everything that happens. It will take time for some people to accept the fact that the women of today and tomorrow are no longer in the tent, nor only in the kitchen and the home, but have accepted the full responsibility of Jewish womenhood and Jewish community.

You have a love of Judaism, you have knowledge, and you have the tools to acquire more knowledge. We hope that this book will always remind you of your years at our school and of your responsibility as an educated Jewish woman.

May you be blessed and may you always be a blessing, as you are today.  

Mary C. Schwartz is an Associate Professor at the School of Social Work, State University of New York at Buffalo. Her article “The High Price of ‘Failure” appeared in the premiere issue of Lilith.