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.

The Female Alternative to Circumcision

In a sense, the greatest "sign" of this covenant is the fulfillment of God's promise that Sarah will bear a child. Sarah's pregnancy and Isaac's birth are tangible proof that God fulfills promises--and will similarly fulfill the other promises. Perhaps women after Sarah, as the ones bearing life, carryon the covenant between God and Abraham and Sarah's descendants in the most basic, physical way. Maybe circumcision is a male ritual to include men in a physical way in the covenant that women make real in their flesh when they bear the next generation.

This view has its own problems. Women of every nation bear children; how can childbearing be an essential characteristic or sign of a particular covenant? And what about women who will not bear children? Are they excluded from the covenant?

We need to look further. Scholars such as Savina Teubal argue that the world described in the Torah was preceded by a matriarchal system in which women held significant power, perhaps as priestesses. The decisive role of the matriarchs in determining the transmission of this male covenant (through Isaac and later Jacob) might be a trace from a time of greater female power (Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis, 1984). Such intriguing possibilities open up different ways of understanding the Torah and our earliest history.

But regardless of its origins, Jews today understand the b'rit to include boys and girls, men and women. Numerous rituals have evolved to welcome baby girls into the covenant. Today, many Jews would not consider not having a brit bat ritual to welcome their daughter into the covenant. In some communities, a particular ritual provides the norm. In others, parents decide on the ritual, often together with the rabbi.

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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.