Breathing Life into the Women of Chayei Sarah by Ivy Helman.

One of the basic tenants of feminist methodology in religion is the recovery of women’s history.   There are many ways to approach such a task.  In religions with sacred writings, one avenue for recovery may be reinterpreting them.  This could come in the form of a critique.  For example, traditional interpretations may overlook or undervalue women, who appear in the text, reaffirm sexist, patronizing, and/or misogynist viewpoints already found in the text, or develop new ones.  In order to recover women’s history, feminists working with their sacred texts would then call out these interpretations for their sexism.  They would correct phrasing, understanding, and even translations, when necessary.   

In addition to critiquing, feminist interpretations of scripture could also be constructive.  Religious feminists may highlight values, teachings, and images that affirm women’s lives.   They may incorporate documented history into their interpretations as proof of expanded roles for women.  That would then contextualize or negate later traditions that deny women such roles.  

Examples of feminist interpretations of scripture that seek to recover women’s history using a variety of critical and constructive work abound.  In Christianity,  there is Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her.  Fiorenza not only corrects mistranslations but also highlights the role women played in the early Christain house churches.   Another example comes from my last blog: Judith Plaskow’s, “The Coming of Lilith.”  An Islamic example is “Rethinking Women and Islam” by Amira El-Azhary Sonbol in the book Daughters of Abraham: Feminist Thought in Judaism, Christainity and Islam.  In fact, this book offers good examples of feminist interactions with scriptural traditions.   

Let me offer another in the parshah, Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18).  For as short as it is, much takes place.  Chayei Sarah begins with the report of Sarah’s death, by emphasizing the length of her life.  Then, it describes the actions Abraham took because of Sarah’s death.  He negotiates and buys a burial plot, in which he buries her.  

Then, Abraham sends his servant to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac.  The servant devises a plan to find a G-d-ordained wife for Isaac; the one who performs an act of loving-kindness by offering water to him and the camels will be the one G-d has chosen.  Rebecca does so.  In response, the servant gives her gifts and asks to stay at her house.  Rebecca runs home to tell her mother what happened. Soon after, at the house, he explains who Abraham is, why he is there, and what happened at the well between him and Rebecca.  The servant gives gifts to Rebecca, her mother, and her brother.  

The next morning, the servant wants to return with Rebecca, but Rebecca’s mother and brother want her to stay home for another 10 months to a year.  The servant is impatient, so Rebecca’s mother and brother decide to ask her what she wants to do.  She decides to leave immediately.  They bless Rebecca, and Rebecca and her maidens return with the servant.  

On the road, Isaac appears.  Isaac and Rebecca marry in Sarah’s tent.  Rebecca helps Isaac get over his mother’s death.  Abraham himself remarries and fathers six more children with his new bride, Keturah.  At the ripe old age of 175, he dies.  Isaac and Ishmael bury him with Sarah.  Only Isaac receives any of Abraham’s inheritance.  His five brothers and one sister receive only gifts.  Finally, the parshah ends with a reporting of the descendants of Ishmael.  

Returning to the beginning of the parshah, Genesis 23:1 reads, “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah.”  I would not have thought much of this awkward telling of her age, if I hadn’t had Rashi’s commentary directly under it.  He writes, “…When she was one hundred years old, she was like a twenty-year-old regarding sin… And when she was twenty, she was like a seven-year-old as regards to beauty…”  Later when Abraham dies, Rashi describes Abraham only as sinless even though his attestation of years follows the same pattern.  Why does Rashi feel the need to highlight her beauty?  Why compare her beauty to a 7 year old girl?  This is not only patronizing, it is disturbing.  

It is also disturbing that most summaries of this parshah fail to mention the role of Rebecca’s mother.  Although unnamed just like Abraham’s servant, she is essential.  After all, Rebecca runs immediately to tell her what happened at the well.  Clearly, Rebecca and her mother have a good relationship.  Rebecca’s mother, along with her brother, also suggest that Rebecca stay with them longer, perhaps they will miss her when she leaves.  When the servant protests, they suggest offering Rebecca a choice.  Her mother and brother respect her integrity and will as an individual.

Yet, Jewish tradition lauds Rebecca’s mitzvah of hesed, or loving-kindness: offering of water to the servant and the camels. For this, Judaism says she is a model for all Jews regardless of gender, to which I agree.  Yet, Rebecca’s choices and even her ability to choose figure significantly in her life, at least as much as hesed. Beyond a doubt, she plays an active role in her own destiny by offering Abraham’s servant and his camels water, but also accepting his gifts and Issac as a husband, by choosing when to leave her mother’s house, and by comforting a grieving Isaac.  Rebecca is also a model of women’s ability to control their own destiny.  

Then, there is Keturah.  Many interpretations suggest she is Hagar but with a new name. I find those arguments unconvincing. Is interpretation trying to erase the existence and memory of another woman altogether? Rather, I agree with the interpretations that consider Keturah an altogether different woman. 

The four examples here illustrate how important the feminist reinterpretation of scripture is for the recovery of women’s history.  Critiquing summaries and interpretations recovers Rebecca’s mother and Rebecca’s choices.  Keturah is not subsumed into Hagar or Sarah further patronised.  Likewise, constructive work highlights the importance of the mother-daughter relationship and women’s control over their own destiny.  While there is still work to be done, surely, this feminist analysis has breathed more life into the women of Chayei Sarah and, hopefully, into us, as well.


Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses. 

Categories: General, Jewish Feminism, Judaism, Textual Interpretation, Torah, Women's Agency, Women's Voices

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1 reply

  1. Excellent comments and questions. We can tell you’re really paying attention to your holy books and the commentators on them, ancient and modern. I think the world needs more scholars like you.

    I’m curious about something. Does the word “scripture” (which basically means writing) apply only to the Judeo-Christian Bible? Can it be used with other holy books?

    Bright blessings to you and your good work. Keep reading and thinking?

    Liked by 2 people

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