Is Judaism Sexist?
To answer the question posed by the title of this Dvar Torah, let us look at the facts. Right out of the box, Judaism is different from every other major religion. Each of the other major faiths trace their beginnings to one single individual, invariably a male. Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed respectively are the initiators of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.
Judaism is distinctly unique. First, it proclaims that people, male and female, were “created in the image of God.” True, men and women differ in terms of their physical and psychological attributes; they may have different roles to play in society. However, Judaism maintains their inherent value is the same. “In the image of God,” teaches the Torah’s premise that the essence of every human being is his or her divine soul.
Second is the fact that our religion has its origin in four married couples dedicated to the true ideas of God. These people are our patriarchs and matriarchs. Each possessed unique, individual qualities and talents which they directed to serving God. Sometimes they worked independently of each other, on other occasions they worked in tandem and in harmony. They were united by their mission to create a unique nation that would enter a special covenant and relationship with the Creator. The previous 2 parshiot and the next 4 Torah portions highlight the contributions of each individual and couple.
Other than sending his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son, Yitzchak, Avraham’s participation in the religion’s development, ends with the death of his beloved wife, Sarah. Sarah, no less than Avraham, displayed her commitment to the word of God. She too abandoned her family and journeyed to an unknown land, “the land that I will show you.” The Torah tells us that she too took the role of teacher alongside her husband. Taking the time to explain their new way of life to all who wanted to learn about it, they took these people with them on their journey as well, “and they took with them the souls they made in Charan.” Avraham’s and Sarah’s concern for the welfare of others meant they could not abandon those they had influenced. (Bereisheit 12:5)
Our Torah records two different times when Sarah suffered the indignity of being taken by sexual predators. As true for any woman, one can imagine the extreme anxiety she experienced on both occasions. Could there be any more abhorrent experience than to be desecrated by these men? Sarah was the paradigm of modesty. When asked about her whereabouts, Avraham remarked, “she is in the tent,” meaning for the most part she is private, out of the public eye. (Bereisheit 18:9) Her great righteousness merited she be saved on these two occasions by the direct intervention of God. Her absolute faith in God enabled her to remain calm throughout both ordeals. Her commitment to and trust in God remains an eternal inspiration to all of her descendants.
Yet Sarah was not a passive follower of her husband Avraham. When she reasoned that her childbearing days were behind her, she convinced Avraham to take her maidservant, Hagar, as a wife. Together Avraham and Hagar would conceive a child who would to be heir to their movement. Sarah was prepared to share her husband with another woman and give up her powerful desire to be the biological mother of the covenantal community Avraham would bring about. (Bereisheit 16:1-3)
Sarah held fast to the idea that her major role would be in bringing up the child, transmitting to him the great values of their new philosophy of life. In this way the child born by the union of Hagar and Avraham would qualify him as the next leader. The underlying motivation for her actions was always to participate, in some way, to bring about God’s will.
Yet when she found the son of Avraham and Hagar, Ishmael, to be unfit as the philosophic inheritor of Avraham, she freely expressed her concerns. The Torah records the pain Avraham experienced in her assessment. But the Torah confirms that her insights into human personality were keener than Avraham’s. God instructed Avraham to listen to Sarah. “In whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice.” Avraham accepted and supported her decision to send Ishmael and Hagar away. Sarah’s advice and action saved the religion of Judaism to this day. Our Rabbis deduce from this event that Sarah possessed a “superior understanding.” Her concern was for the moment and the future of Judaism as well. (Bereisheit 21: 9-12)
In short, Sarah is the “woman of valor” par excellence! She displayed great faith, courage, and calm in the face of tremendous adversity. She could harness powerful emotions for the sake of bringing about God’s will to create a unique nation. She possessed prophetic insight and carried herself with the intellectual confidence to express her disagreements with her husband, Avraham.
Is Judaism sexist? The answer is a resounding, no! Only with a superficial reading and understanding of our sacred texts, laws and writings does someone conclude that it is. Judaism’s religious history is as rich with female personalities dedicated to bringing about the will of God as are its male figures. Lacking in today’s world, unfortunately, is the effort to study Judaism directly and honestly without any historical biases, preconceived notions, and prejudices or through any contemporary lens.
Just analyze Judaism on its own. When you do, you will discover Judaism’s outlook and way of life are totally different and unique from all other religious and social systems. Only with that recognition does the correct vision of Judaism emerge. “It is a tree of life to all who grab on to it and its supporters are praiseworthy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:18-17)
I want to thank my colleague, good friend, and mentor Rabbi Reuven Mann for sharing his thoughts on this topic with me.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan