Sarah our Matriarch passes from the world in this week’s Torah Portion, Hayei Sarah. It is a good opportunity to examine the legacy of her relationship with Abraham her husband.
Only three times in the whole Torah does Sarah our matriarch speak to her husband Abraham. All three instances are in contexts of frustration or conflict in which Sarah is deeply perturbed. In all three cases Abraham does exactly what Sarah asks of him. And in all three cases we find modern feminist commentaries suggesting that Abraham could have reacted very differently than he actually does!
In the first instance, after Abraham and Sarah have suffered decades of barrenness, and ten years since God has promised to make of Abraham a great nation, Sarah says to her husband “Consort with my slave girl; perhaps I shall have a son through her”. Our matriarch has seemingly despaired of ever bearing a child in her own womb – she is indeed 75 years old at this point! – and selflessly offers her maidservant to Abraham as a surrogate mother. “And Abraham heeded Sarah’s request”.
Sarah’s maidservant Hagar conceives … and Sarah is unexpectedly devastated. She is humiliated by the protruding belly of her servant, while her womb is still empty. She feels denigrated by the intimacy between Abraham and Hagar that is broadcast throughout the camp by the pregnancy. Her feminine identity takes a terrible beating, and she lashes out at Abraham, irrationally proclaiming “The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my slave girl in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem”. The patriarch dutifully responds to his wife saying “Your slavegirl is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.”
In the third dialogue between husband and wife, Ishmael, the son born through Hagar, is already on his way to becoming a young man, and is described as mocking Isaac, the young child that God has in the meanwhile miraculously brought forth from Sarah’s own womb. “She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave girl and her son”. And here again, despite his pain and misgivings, the patriarch arises early the next morning to do exactly what his spouse has demanded.
Should we – and here I am speaking to our male readers – learn from the example of Abraham, immediately acquiescing to what our wives have asked? Perhaps not!
In Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, author John Gray suggests that men ought to remember that women talk about their problems and suggest avenues of possible action, in order “to get close and not necessarily to get solutions.” They may not want a fix but rather a sympathetic ear and a sincere validation of their emotional struggles. Men and women at times speak different languages.
Perhaps Sarah was really not so naive as to believe that her husband could be intimate with her maidservant without the whole structure of their marriage being shaken. Perhaps she really didn’t countenance her husband actually acceding to her request to go in to Hagar. She just wanted to talk about it, to explore her feelings with Abraham, to let him know how terribly bad she felt that her childlessness was preventing him from realizing God’s promise to him. She desperately wanted to be understood. But Abraham did not understand.
And ditto when she blames Abraham for the mess created by the pregnancy of Hagar. She does not want action and she does not want advice. She simply wants to be heard, for Abraham to feel and acknowledge her pain. “Deal with her as you think right” is no solution at all, for it nips in the bud the intimate conversation that Sarah is so much in need of.
And that brings us to the third case. Perhaps Sarah really did not want Hagar and Ishmael sent out into the wilderness. All she wanted and all she needed was empathy. But to her absolute horror, Abraham took her literally, expelling the boy and his mother and abandoning them to possible death, the last thing in the world she would have wanted.
But in this last of the three instances there is a catch. God himself says to Abraham “listen to her voice”. Perhaps in this instance we must abandon our interpretation, and accept that if God tells Abraham to do as Sarah demanded, that certainly indicates that Sarah had already decisively made up her mind that Ishmael and Hagar must be banished. That may be. But there is another way, radical but plausible. It has been suggested by Marsha Pravder Mirkin that when God says “listen to her voice” what God meant is to listen closely to the emotions behind her words … but not to actually perform the act that she had requested!
So perhaps we are to learn that men ought to listen differently to women than they would to men, with attention to the pathos of the inner world rather than focusing on immediate solutions in the practical world. And this advice may be exactly God’s message to us through Abraham: “Listen to her voice.”
I recently had the privilege of listening to Professor Ron Wolfson give several talks to my community about his new book, Relational Judaism. Professor Wolfson’s thesis, as he explains here, is that Jewish institutions are failing us, and hemorrhaging affiliated members as a result, because they focus on “transactional Judaism” rather than he what terms “relational Judaism.” Transactional Judaism connotes a fee-for-service approach in which institutions offer programs, activities, services, and schools, in exchange for money. Instead, Wolfson argues that institutions and their leaders need to focus more time, energy, and financial resources on building face-to-face relationships, micro-communities, and programming with a relationship-generating component built in.
There is a lot of wisdom in Wolfson’s book, and I commend it as critical reading for all Jewish professionals, from rabbis to federation leaders to school principals. Making synagogues more welcoming of visitors, taking the time to meet parents of students or JCC members one on one, and cutting back on committee meetings will make Jewish institutions of all sizes and locations more vibrant and personal. But as I read through the case studies in his book, and heard him speak, I kept feeling a sense of disquieting disconnect: the Jewish world he describes in his book does not equate with the Jewish world I experience out in the hinterlands of Connecticut.
There are two different worlds of Judaism in America today. There are huge Jewish demographic presences in the big cities (New York, LA, D.C., Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, and a few others) and their surrounding suburbs (the Valley, Westchester, areas in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia), where the variety of religious expression and opportunity is incredibly rich, perhaps richer than ever before in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. Here, relational Judaism can be a huge benefit to large synagogues and other organizations that have lost their personal touch. Relational Judaism can serve as an effective way to re-vivify places that have grown cold, sterile, and indifferent. Larger federations can and should hire Jewish concierges to help steward new members of the Jewish community and existing members passing from one life stage to another (e.g. post Bar/Bat Mitzvah or new empty nesters) to various organizational presences and opportunities. Synagogues with multiple clergy should deploy them in more interactive ways, such as having a rabbi meet religious school parents in the parking lot to ameliorate the nefarious “drop off” effect or creating an alternative Friday night service in congregants’ homes.
But, as I told Professor Wolfson, I remain unconvinced that relational Judaism can work in small communities where resources are so scarce that institutions spend most of their time just trying to run basic programs and keep the lights on. On Shabbat morning, the rabbi of a small synagogue—who is the only clergy—cannot simultaneously greet people who come in during services and lead the congregation in prayers. When the religious school director is also a teacher, in order to make the budget work, he or she cannot both teach students and engage with parents post-drop off or pre-pick up. A federation that cannot sustain its local day school or JCC does not have the funds to hire a concierge, and communities here are so territorially sensitive that it is not clear a concierge could even work.
I should add at this point that I remain committed to the vision that relational Judaism espouses. To me, the issue of relational Judaism’s application to smaller Jewish communities leads directly the broader question of the future of these communities as presently constituted. I think we need to begin having far more candid conversations about merging older institutions and achieving economies of scale that enable the kind of vibrant, personal, creative Jewish expression that millennials—and many other Jews—crave. Where I live, there are four Conservative synagogues and two Reform synagogues within 20 minutes of one another. None have more than a few hundred members; some have far less. These synagogues are competing with one another for scarce members, replicating administrative and other staffing costs, and fragmenting rather than unifying the Jewish community. This is crazy! Imagine what kind of places they could be if they came together: imagine how spirited and uplifting services could be if several hundred people showed up each Shabbat, and how many opportunities there could be for multiple minyanim; imagine how many friendships could be created in a religious school with 100 students rather than 4 schools with 20-30 in each; imagine how large and effective a bikkur holim (visiting the sick) society could be established to reach out to those in need within our communities; and on and on.
As you probably know, this kind of community-wide view of local institutions is highly implausible today. Donors want the organizations they have supported to remain open in their current forms, even if doing so is short-sighted. What we truly need is the leadership and courage of our community leaders, in small Jewish communities across the country, to engage donors and other local decision-makers in the process of re-visioning the future of these communities. Perhaps through a relational approach–engaging these decision makers in one to one conversations and small group meetings–we can plant the seeds for the growth of relational Judaism in communities both large and small.