By Barbara Kavadias
There is an old Chinese saying: women hold up half the sky. It would seem that, in this world view, women and their contributions to life are of equal importance to those of men. This does not really speak to the nature of those contributions, if they are the same or different efforts, but that they are equally valued and important to the survival of their community, and of the world.
In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we can see that Biblical Judaism also embraced strong and necessary roles for women. In this portion, a pregnant Rebecca speaks to Adonai. Like Sarah before her, Adonai speaks to her and she gets an answer. She is told that she is carrying twins, and told of their different futures. Like Abraham in last week’s portion, Chaya Sarah, Rebecca works with God to make this future happen.
Abraham, if you will recall, was told that his descendants would be given the land of Israel. When it came time to bury Sarah, even though he was offered the land for free, he insisted on buying it. Why did he buy the land? What is given by human beings can be taken away. Abraham bought the land in order, the Rabbis tell us, to establish our right to Eretz Israel. God had said we would be given the land, but Abraham wisely knew that not all people had the same relationship with Adonai. He had to be a partner in creating our right to Israel.
Similarly, and just as importantly, Rebecca acts as a partner with God and takes steps to ensure that the right son is given Isaac’s blessing so that the covenant would flow through him. She advises Jacob on the steps he must take to be sure that he gets the blessing of the firstborn, the blessing that, by birth order, should have gone to Esau. Her efforts, like Abraham’s, were seen as important to the Jewish story.
Today, there are those in Israel who seek to silence women and undermine our participation in both Jewish life and civil society. At the same time, the government of Israel has been a leader in the world in promoting equality for women, and Progressive Judaism, in Israel. The Reform Movement is making women’s equality real in the everyday and sacred lives of women, families, and communities. Boys and girls wear kippot in their schools. Girls learn Torah and Talmud alongside boys, at the same time that they are studying literature, mathematics and science. Men and women are ordained as rabbis, and the dean of the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is a woman.
The struggle at the Kotel has become a flashpoint in the conflict between these two worldviews. There, access to the Kotel (the Western Wall, formerly known as the Wailing Wall) is being mired in gender politics. A mechitza (partition) has been erected. The women’s side is continually reduced. Women’s prayer on the women’s side is increasingly restricted, no kippot, no tallitot, no group prayer, only murmured or silent, not out loud as Jewish prayer has been since Hannah. But, women and their allies are refusing to accept this. The conflict has escalated to the point where Anat Hoffman was arrested last Rosh Chodesh.
This week’s Torah potion should remind all of us that God listens to and speaks to women and that we had an important role in creating our history. If God will listen to us, how can anyone tell us to be silent? If we were partners with God in creating our history, should we not be partners in creating our future? As we struggle for equality at the Kotel, ask yourself, what will you do? What role will you play?
Barbara Kavadias is Acting ARZA Executive Director.