Women and the Covenant

How women figure into the male-oriented covenant that begins with Abraham and circumcision.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Is Sarah part of the b’rit (the covenant) that God establishes with Abraham? While our impulse might well be: “How can you ask such a question? Of course Sarah was part of the covenant,” the details of the text force the question upon us. From the opening words calling Abraham to leave his homeland, and throughout this parashah, God speaks directly with Abraham, not with Sarah. Most dramatically, the sign of the b’rit in Genesis 17 is circumcision, clearly a male-only ritual.
The Torah a Women's Commentary
One could argue that this ritual established a covenant only between God and Abraham, and Abraham’s male descendants, and that women stood outsidethis religious cult altogether. Perhaps Sarah and the other matriarchs had their own religious practices and traditions, their own way of relating to God. Or, perhaps, they were passive members of this covenant between God and the men, valued as child-bearers, but otherwise on the periphery.

Let us consider another way to read the text. The critical element of the b’rit is the promise that Abraham will be fruitful and become the father of nations. Women’s role as child bearers is therefore not ancillary but central to meaning of the covenant. And, while God does not address Sarah directly in Genesis 17, God refers to her and changes Sarah’s name just like Abraham’s–with the addition of the letter heh and with a parallel explanation: “she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her” (17:16).

Even when Abraham doubts Sarah’s ability to bear children and suggests that God’s covenant continue through Ishmael, God reassures him that the covenant will pass through Sarah’s son, Isaac. Thus, God makes it clear that not all of Abraham’s descendants are part of this covenant, only the ones of Sarah. This underscores Sarah’s crucial role; it makes Sarah and Abraham, physically speaking, equal partners in the covenant.

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Rabbi Ruth H. Sohn is the director of the Leona Aronoff Rabbinic Mentoring Program and Rabbi of the Beit Midrash at Hebrew Union College in LA. She also teaches adults in a variety of venues in Los Angeles.

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