Parshat Haye Sarah

Opening the Gaps in Patriarchy

How Rebekah helped empower women.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

When read with modern sensibilities, Genesis 24 is a traditional tale about a man who travels to a far-off land to find a woman to marry his master's son. Imagine that you are that woman, going about your daily chores when a strange man approaches you. He gazes at you for a bit, and finding you to be a beautiful virgin, inquires as to your family lineage. Then he meets with your father and brother, who, seeing the many gifts that the servant has bestowed upon you and them, say without hesitation, "Take her and go, and let her be a wife to your master's son."

american jewish world serviceThis is the scene that unfolds in Genesis 24--a traditional story, but with a surprising twist: Rebekah's father, Bethuel, and brother, Laban, recant, and say "Let us call the girl and ask for her reply" (24:57). This verse is extraneous to the story and does not change the narrative at all, since Rebekah immediately agrees to go. What is it doing here?

The Rabbis might have simply dismissed this as a stalling tactic since this verse appears in the context of the servant's desire to take Rebekah with him immediately and her family's desire that he tarry. Instead, Rashi makes a bold move and writes that from this specific phrase about a specific woman, we learn a general principle: a woman cannot be married against her will in Jewish law (Rashi on Genesis 24:57, based on Genesis Rabbah 70:12).

Thus, Rebekah is carried to a far off land to marry Isaac, but with an express consent that impacts all Jewish women: "I will go" (24:58).

Rashi Empowers Women

This story, which seems at first to solely treat women as silent property to be exchanged at will, is made slightly less disturbing by the important inclusion of Rebekah's consent. Her voice matters at this moment, and Rashi amplifies it to make sure it is heard in future generations. He takes this tiny gap in the patriarchy-clad story and opens it up further, making women's voices relevant to halakhah as a whole.

This incident leaves a small, open space for Rebekah to be an active player in the decisions about her own life, one the Rabbis expanded to create greater change--and we can follow their lead. We must find the places where gender roles are cracking, where women's voices are beginning to be heard, and wedge into those openings to create the chance for a stronger voice with wider resonance. We can find small elements of hope in patriarchal societies and expand upon them to make sustainable, systemic change.

Across the globe, when women in traditional societies are given the chance to be hear--on matters of their own health, the financial well-being of their families, or, more broadly, the democratic process--women, men and children flourish. When women are not allowed to be active decision makers in their own lives and in the lives of their families, they stumble.

Contemporary Organizations

Grassroots organizations around the world are working to widen the space for women created by Rebekah. The Afghan Women's Resource Center (AWRC) finds small gaps in patriarchy and, in those gaps, offers courses in literacy, health, women's rights and micro enterprise. USOFOORAL ESUPAN in Senegal found a gap, and in it runs a sustainable gardening project that will provide income for 60 women and youth. The Center for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP) in Uganda finds space for change at the grassroots level, and in that space, is mobilizing communities to change attitudes and behaviors that perpetuate domestic violence.

American Jewish World Service supports each of these projects and many others that try to change the world for the better through women's empowerment.

These organizations give women--if not Rebekah, then Farhat, Ramatulai, and Nabulung--voices, and provide opportunities through which they can begin to defeat problems that might otherwise be overwhelming. Rather than turning away from an entire society in resignation, they find the places where women can speak and they work to expand those spaces from the inside, much as Rashi did with Genesis 24:57. And so must we each listen for openings and wedge into those cracks the fight for women's empowerment.

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Adina Gerver

Adina Gerver, a freelance writer and editor, is studying at the Advanced Scholars Program of the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. She has served as assistant director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning and program officer at the Covenant Foundation.