Once a month, I meet with about 10 other Jewish girls as part of the Rosh Chodesh program. We drink tea, bake cookies, do mindful meditations and kvetch. Most importantly, though, we talk about the impact our female identities have on our daily lives and within Judaism. Earlier this month, over a batch of half-baked brownies, we discussed a Torah portion that rattled the foundation of my identity as a Jewish woman.
In Genesis 12:10-12:20, Abram and his wife Sarai go to Egypt to flee a famine. Abram asks Sarai to pretend to be his sister so that the Pharaoh might reward him. The plan works and Sarai is taken to Pharaoh’s palace where Abram receives benefits from the Pharaoh. In other words, because Abram let Pharaoh sleep with Sarai (a situation made possible by the fact that Sarai was pretending to be Abram’s sister), Abram reaped benefits.
When I first read the line “through [Sarai] it did go well for Abram,” I wanted to be optimistic — maybe you could it view it as Sarai succeeding. But did she really succeed? As far as I can tell from the text, she never consented to Abram’s plan. Abram exploited his wife’s beauty and sexuality for economic gain. The midrash from “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” explains that “the exchange of a woman has taken place.” Regardless of the fact that this text is part of Judaism — the religion I am committed to and hold dear — there’s no way that I, as a Jewish woman, can stand by the idea that it’s OK to treat a woman as a possession instead of as a person.
Rabbi Na’ama Dafni-Kellen of the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa says that there are three ways to handle Jewish texts with which you profoundly disagree. One, you can ignore the text; two, you can put it in historical context; three, you can rewrite the passage so it aligns more closely with your point of view.
When I read this text with my Rosh Chodesh group, I found that I couldn’t ignore it. What did this text mean? What was its message? I needed to know. As a group, we put the text in historical context. There isn’t anything uniquely sexist about Abram and his understanding of women as property and as economic currency — the Bible is just set in inherently sexist and patriarchal times.
We spent most of our meeting (and hours afterward) focusing on the last step: rewriting the text to make it more palatable to us as Jewish women. That felt so wrong at first. By rewriting this text, how could we be doing anything but ignoring part of our history? We should grapple with it. We should feel uncomfortable about it. We should think about it, again and again and again. We should write midrash! We should write midrash on the midrash.
According to the Torah, these events happened. Whether we like it or not, they are part of our tradition, and rewriting them so that they’re more to our liking doesn’t change that. Just because a story upsets me and makes me uncomfortable doesn’t mean that it should be swept under the rug. I don’t want a new story; I want more of this story. What happened next? Did Abram feel badly at all for what he did to his wife? Did Sarai feel betrayed or taken advantage of? Did this negatively affect Abram and Sarai’s relationship, and if so, did they work to get past it?
We can’t rewrite history, but we can change the narrative around women who speak up about sexual assault by believing them, by supporting them, and by making it clear that what they endured is not, and will never be acceptable.
I have similar questions about the #MeToo Movement and all the sexual abuse allegations coming to light. Like Sarai, the bodies of the women who allege sexual harassment have been exploited for the benefit of men, without their consent. Because of the many repercussions associated with women sharing their stories (not being believed, losing jobs, the fear of retaliation from abusers, etc…), they often stay hidden. But now, thanks to the widespread support of women coming forward with the help of campaigns such as #MeToo and “Time’s Up,” more of these stories are being told.
What happened next in Abram and Sarai’s story? We may never know. What will happen about the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment in this country? Well, that’s up to all of us. Sarai’s circumstances and the time in which she lived granted her few rights at all, let alone space to share her story, but we’ve come to a moment in time when it seems that the floodgates have finally opened. We can’t rewrite history, but we can change the narrative around women who speak up about sexual assault by believing them, by supporting them, and by making it clear that what they endured is not, and will never be acceptable.
Natalie Harder is a senior at Newton South High School in Newton, Mass.
Editor’s Note: This content was produced in partnership with the Jewish Women’s Archive.