November 17, 2011

Chayei Sarah--Accusing the Torah of Feminism

The joys of writing a blog with 4 other people is that when you have a small 2-week-long nervous breakdown (of sorts), the life of the blog goes on without you. Of course, that doesn't help much when it is time to post about a Torah portion and you've missed the last two. I am, at this moment, entirely out of context. I left off at Noah and now I'm suddenly seeing Isaac get married. Sunrise, Sunset...

What strikes me most about this portion is the feminist quality. Feminism is not one of the things the Torah is generally accused of, but it certainly appears now and again. Having missed the last 2 portions, I can't say for sure that this is it's first appearance, but--given that we are so close to the beginning--maybe it is.

On the surface this is a simple story; a man sends his servant to find a wife for his son, God supplies the woman, the family approves without asking the woman her thoughts, the woman is forced to leave her home and her family in order to marry a stranger in another land, etc, etc. The only time you see Rebekkah's feelings being considered is when she is asked if she wants to go with the stranger now or later. It is not apparently a question of IF, it's a question of WHEN. That's the surface... let's look closer.

The first appearance of a belief that women are in fact people comes pretty early in the story. Genesis 24:5. At this point Abraham has asked his servant to go to the land of his birth to find a wife for his son. The servant's immediate response is to question what he should do if the woman doesn't choose to come with him. It is not only understood that she would have a choice, but it is his immediate concern. This indicates to me that women in the land of Abraham's birth had a say in their destiny and were known to exercise it.

Later you see a subtle indication when Rebekkah is asked, "Whose daughter are you? Is there room at your father's house?" She responds that she is "the daughter of Bethual, son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor." There is no need to mention her grandmother here. In fact, she has really gone quite out of her way to do so. Why not Bethual, son of Nahor? Instead Nahor appears to be an afterthought; the grandmother is the one who matters. She goes on to answer his question about room in her "father's house," but doesn't call it her father's house as the servant had. Instead, she answers in the same way that I find myself answering questions that are asked with good intentions but with implications I don't particularly care for.

"What are you doing for Christmas this year?" 
Implication: Everyone celebrates Christmas. I mean, it's not even Thanksgiving yet, but the entire world is preparing for it. 
Answer I want to give: "Not everyone celebrates Christmas. I, for example, am Jewish and don't participate in the festivities surrounding the birth of your messiah."
Answer I do give: "I am going to a friend's cabin for vacation since the kids are out of school."

Rebekkah does the same thing here. 

"Is there room in your father's house?" 
Implication: All property is owned and all decisions are made by men.
Answer she might want to give: "My father's house? Around here the woman calls the shots. It's my mother's house." Then she cusses and throws a gang sign.
Answer she gives: "We have plenty of room at home."

An accurate answer that politely dodges a desire to correct him in his implication that her world is the same as his.

Further reading tells you that upon returning home she ran to her mother's household to tell them what had happened. This resulted in her brother, Laban, coming out to greet their guest. In other words, the person who comes out as the representative of the house is not "the son of Bethual", rather he is the son of the currently nameless mother. He resides not in his father's house, but in his mother's.

The servant tells his story to Laban and a present but silent Bethual. Interestingly, in the retelling he changes Rebekkah's response about her lineage to the more masculine "daughter of Bethual, son of Nahor, whom Milcah bore to him."  Once the servant gets the okay on the marriage, he begins giving gifts. To whom do the gifts belong? The girl's father is part of the conversation, but the gifts go to the brother and the mother. Why? I would venture to guess that this is a matriarchal society. Apparently the son is doing the work, but he is not the boss. Who is? Not the father, obviously. It's the mother. Laban is a representative who works for the woman of the house. The father doesn't seem to play much of a part in the goings on. It is very possible that he was only at the table as a parent, as opposed to being someone who had the power to approve or disapprove.

Later, Rebekkah's family tries to keep her there for a while before she leaves. Obviously they didn't know the day before that she would be moving to another city (if not country) the next day, but I see something more here. If this was a society that freely moved their women around at the whims of men, they would be prepared from the day a woman was old enough to marry to "give her away." Instead, they appear to be emotionally unprepared for her to go. Could that be because this is a society in which a man joins his wife's family instead of the other way around?  Either way the question of will she stay or will she go is answered by Rebekkah. She is not being pushed around in this story. This is her life. Her choice. Ultimately, she is the one that had the final say.

When she arrives and is married her new husband takes her into a tent to consummate their marriage. (Or maybe the consummation is the marriage?? I am unclear.) Whose tent do they go to? His? His father's? Nope. It's his mother's. Why, do you think? This is the moment when the two become one. The setting is important and probably filled with meaning. He took her to his mother's tent perhaps because his mother having passed before he met his wife removed the possibility of having her bless his marriage. This, it would seem, is how he hoped to get his mother's blessing, which must have been very important to him.


Side bar: The last part of chapter 24 has a very cinematic feel to me. Isaac is walking in a field with the sun setting behind him. He looks up and sees camels approaching. Rebekkah sees him. Eye contact. She jumps down from her camel in apparent awe of his handsomeness. She asks who he is. He is Isaac. Realization appears in her eyes. He smiles at her. She smiles at him. The music swells. The ladies in the audience swoon. Roll credits.

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