Lech Lecha: the covenant of Abraham and Sarah

The idea of covenant with God was already present with the narratives of Noah. In Genesis Chapter 6 we find “And God said to Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make an ark of gopher wood…. I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, and your sons, and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort you will bring into the ark to keep them alive with you….So did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.”

After the flood comes another covenant – (Genesis Ch.9) “And God spoke to Noah, and to his sons with him, saying: ‘As for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you… never shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; nor shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ And God said: ‘This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth. …And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.’ And God said to Noah: ‘This is the token of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”

So when God makes the covenant of the pieces with Abram in Genesis 15 “And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and there was thick darkness, behold a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces. In that day the Eternal made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” while we may find the description opaque, the idea of the divine promise given to one individual but extending into the future is familiar.

Parashat Lech Lecha introduces the covenant that is central to Jews and Judaism – brit milah – circumcision.  In Genesis 17 we read “God appeared to Abram, and said to him: ‘I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be wholehearted. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply thee exceedingly.’ ‘ My covenant is with you and you will be the father of a multitude of nations. Your name shall not anymore be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham…And I will make you exceeding fruitful, I will make nations of you, and kings shall come out of you And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant….. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. He that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed…must be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. …..And God said to Abraham: ‘As for Sarai thy wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.  And I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.”

Judaism is based on the particular covenant relationship between God and the Jewish people. And this relationship begins with Abraham and Sarah, travelling down the generations through their son Isaac. This covenant relationship is unbreakable, however much we let God down or God lets us down. God has other covenantal relationships with humanity, but the specific Jewish relationship of responsibility and purpose is the one that underpins all Jewish teaching.

Pretty much every Jewish family circumcises their 8 day old baby boy in the ceremony of brit milah as bible requires. The child is brought in ceremonially to the mohel and blessings said, which include the blessing “who has commanded us con­cerning circumcision” and   “who has commanded us to  enter [him] into  the covenant of Abraham our father.”

Bible is clear on this – all baby boys, whether born into the Jewish family or adopted into the household, are to be given this sign in their flesh that they too are part of the Abrahamic covenant.  It is a patriarchal society into which they are born, the brit is their male right – but what exactly is the position of women in this covenant so central to Jewish self-understanding?

A closer reading of our texts reveals something interesting. The covenant of the pieces, opaque and full of dark magical symbolism, is deeply patriarchal and refers to the continuity of possession and power of the Abrahamic line. There is a prefiguring of the terrifying experience at Sinai, with smoke and fire and a God who overawes. Yes the childless Abram will have heirs, countless descendants, but their fate will be difficult and painful as slaves and exiles,  until they finally inherit the land, displacing the nations living upon it. Abram himself will die peacefully in old age encountering nothing of the complex future.  The second covenant is different – here it is personal and intimate. While land and descendants are still the critical core of the covenant, here the land is an ahuzah, a family holding, rather than a nation state as in the earlier covenant. Here  Abram’s line is described in terms of family, it is described positively as being fruitful, a multitude of nations including king. There is no mention of a terrible period of time in exile and slavery, instead the focus is on the mutuality of the covenant – Abram and his line must keep the covenant as well as God, and his name is changed to show the personal transformation. And in parallel we are told that Sarai too is part of this promise, she will bear a son, and through that son nations and kings will be born, and the covenant will be held within this familial line. She too has her name changed; she too is radically altered by the encounter. This is a covenant with real people who are active in the creation and expression of the covenant, and who are transformed by the event – both have the letter ה added to their names, a letter used to signify God and both will shortly by transformed by the birth of their child.

While the sign of the covenant is to be embedded in the flesh of the male member, the covenant itself is not limited to those who carry the sign – it is enshrined in the peoplehood that descends from Abraham and Sarah, in their activity and participation.

Looking at the biblical texts we can see that each covenant apparently made with one individual is in reality made with an extension from that individual – be it the covenants with Noah that are in reality made also with his extended family or secondly with the whole of humanity, or the covenants with Abraham which extend to his descendants through Sarah, the notion of the individual limited covenant is a mistake. When we get to Sinai it is clear that while the discussion is with Moses, the covenant is actually with all the people both present and yet to be born or to choose Judaism. Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy in parashat Nitzavim make this clear – everyone, male, female, adult, child, high status or low – is in the covenant.

So how come we only seem to celebrate or mark the entry into the covenant of male children? How are women supposed to see themselves as integral to the covenant too?  Traditional texts assume simply that women need no such entry point. In the Talmud (avodah zarah 87a) we read a debate about who can perform circumcision. The focus is on the repeated words “himol yimol” in the passage from Genesis 17 – this can be translated as the individual must be circumcised to enter the covenant, or it can be understood as ‘the circumciser needs to be circumcised’. Following this second reading, one would imagine that only a man can act as mohel (circumcisor) and yet we know that Zipporah herself circumcised her child. From this the Talmud decides that women are classed as ‘among the circumcised’ – in other words, women are already born with the sign of the covenant in their bodies, and need no extra marking in their flesh.

What this natural state is is subject to debate – it seems to have something to do with the blood released- could it be menstruation or the ability to give birth, both of which involved natural bleeding?  Is it to do with the ability to procreate – certainly the idea of circumcision is also seen in the treatment of fruit trees whose fruit cannot be eaten for three years – they are ‘orlah’, literally ‘uncircumcised’. So possibly the act of milah is an act to make the male ‘fruitful’, something a woman is seen as being ab initio?

But while our texts understand women to be part of the covenant even without ceremony, and the traditional debate is only to clarify the reason for this, it seems to me that a real issue is being overlooked. We bring a boy child into the covenant surrounded by family and community, with great joy and love, a week after his birth. But a girl child is simply noted, a mi sheberach (blessing) recited in her father’s synagogue when neither she nor her mother are present, end of story.

It is not enough. It is not enough to say that women are on a spiritually higher level than men and therefore need not be obligated to do mitzvot. It is not enough to teach that a woman’s glory is internal, that she should be shielded from the outside world, protected from public space. It is not enough to recite platitudes to try to flatter or distract women from living full and public lives, from actively taking their place in the covenant, from operating openly in public space, their voices and ideas heard in study and in action.

By denying women a public recognition of our place in the covenant, we have slid into the position where women’s roles have become seen as lesser than those of men, where women are somehow not counted in the legal or spiritual community of Jews.  It begins to be taught that women are only in the covenant by virtue of their relationship with men – fathers or husbands or sons. It begins to be understood that women’s rights and women’s voices are contingent on their relationship with men. And then we slide into a deeply dangerous place, where women are not only removed from the public space, their voices silenced to protect male ‘sensibilities’, but women’s reality is eroded, women’s experience downplayed, and the covenant is deprived of what was clearly there at the beginning – the particular contribution of women.

Judaism is not only a religion, not only a set of beliefs, not only a genetic inheritance, not only a set of shared values and stories and way of seeing the world – it is a peoplehood in covenant with God. And that peoplehood contains a complex variety of souls. Like the lulav and etrog which are seen as symbolising the Jewish people – some with learning but no mitzvot, others with mitzvot but no learning, yet others with both learning and mitzvot and still others with no learning and no mitzvot – we encompass the full range of what is possible in a people, and we need each other to fulfil ourselves.

So the ceremonies that bring daughters into the covenant – simchat bat, zeved habat, brit bat, – these are important ceremonies and while some date to the 17th century, they are not yet in common usage across the community, nor always recognised as being more than a nice way to celebrate having a new baby in the family or to welcome a daughter into the world.

Women are, and always have been, part of the covenant. Abraham may have had to circumcise himself, but Sarah too was physically altered, bringing her child into world long past the age of childbearing. Both were named, both were transformed, both were necessary

It is time we took more seriously the rite of passage to bring a daughter into the covenant. Time to bring the creative ceremonials out of the shadows and into the mainstream liturgy and life of the synagogue community. Respect for women begins with treating the births of female children with the same communal enthusiasm and joy as the birth of male children is celebrated. From publicly entering a girl child into the covenant may come a greater understanding that women have our own part in the covenant, must explore it and explain it and be creative with it as the men have over the centuries.

Merle Feld’s poem “We all stood together at Sinai” is a salutary reminder of what happens when we don’t give equal value time and space to women’s covenant experience.

We All Stood Together   By Merle Feld   (for Rachel Adler)

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there

It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down

And then
As time passes
The particulars
The hard data
The who what when where why
Slip away from me
And all I’m left with is
The feeling

But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute

My brother is so sure of what he heard
After all he’s got a record of it
Consonant after consonant after consonant

If we remembered it together
We could recreate holy time
Sparks flying

 

 

 

 

 

Vayishlach – Dina,objectified and silent, a pawn in the game of male power

The only daughter of Jacob who is recorded in bible is Dina, the daughter of Leah. Born after her mother has given birth to six sons, she is named by her mother as her brothers were, but unlike their naming no meaning is ascribed to the name so given. (Gen 30:21)

We know nothing of her until her father Jacob had taken his family and wealth and left Haran, had had his name changed to Israel at the ford of Jabok,  had encountered and made his peace with Esau his brother, and then settled down, first in Succot and then in the city of Shechem in the land of Canaan, buying land in which to spread his tent and erecting an altar he called “El-elohei-yisrael” (Gen 33:17-20)

And then her presence is made known to us, with a narrative that seems quite separate from all that has happened before.  The story is a difficult one. It begins with the sentence that Dina, daughter of Leah whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land.

וַתֵּצֵ֤א דִינָה֙ בַּת־לֵאָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָֽלְדָ֖ה לְיַֽעֲקֹ֑ב לִרְא֖וֹת בִּבְנ֥וֹת הָאָֽרֶץ:

And it ends with the voices of her brothers Shimon and Levi asking “should one treat our sister as a prostitute?”    הַֽכְזוֹנָ֕ה יַֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֶת־אֲחוֹתֵֽנוּ:

But what happens between these two sentences?  And is this a story about Dina, or is it really a story about the men in the family?

Dina goes out to meet the local women.  We can only guess why she does this and what is in her mind, for she does not ever speak to us in the text nor does the narrative give us an explanation or any insight into her thinking. Her father has settled in the land, he has done business with the local chieftain Hamor, father of Shechem.  They are at peace. So why would a girl with twelve brothers and no sisters that we know of not want to go out to meet the local girls, and why should anyone think she should not have done so, or that she  should even have been prevented from doing so?  Yet after that moment, the story is all about the status of the men.

Shechem, the pampered prince of the area sees her and so the story really begins. For instead of her “seeing” the local girls she herself is seen. He takes her and he lies with her and “va’y’anei’ha”. And his soul cleaves to Dina daughter of Jacob and he loves the girl and he speaks to her heart.

וַיַּ֨רְא אֹתָ֜הּ שְׁכֶ֧ם בֶּן־חֲמ֛וֹר הַֽחִוִּ֖י נְשִׂ֣יא הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ וַיִּשְׁכַּ֥ב אֹתָ֖הּ וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ:  וַתִּדְבַּ֣ק נַפְשׁ֔וֹ בְּדִינָ֖ה בַּת־יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב וַֽיֶּֽאֱהַב֙ אֶת־הַֽנַּֽעֲרָ֔ וַיְדַבֵּ֖ר עַל־לֵ֥ב הַֽנַּֽעֲרָֽ:

Dina is now not described as Leah’s daughter but as Jacob’s. The verbs are to do with sexual intercourse, but there is nothing in the text to say that this is not consensual sex. The problem is really in the process or rather the lack of process. The young prince’s soul cleaves to her, he loves her, he speaks to her heart – but he has had sex with her without first dealing with her family, and this is the meaning of the verb “va’y’anei’ha” here. Ayin Nun Hei  is a root with a number of meanings – to answer, to afflict, to humble, to test, to answer. In this sentence we are clear that by his act he has lowered her status in the eyes of those who prize virginity.  Her bride price will be affected; she is worth less on the marriage market than she was earlier that morning.

It is worth looking at who else is the object of this verb in biblical narrative. Hagar is treated by Sarah in this way, treated in a way that made her feel worthless, and she runs away. (Genesis 16:6)

God treats Israel with this verb (Deut 8:2) keeping them forty years in the wilderness in order to test them, to ensure that they would follow God’s commandments.

In Leviticus we are told to do this to our souls on Yom Kippur – often described as afflicting our souls from which the rabbinic tradition infers that we should fast on that day – it is a day of self-humbling, of recognising that our power and our status are fleeting and that we are dependent on God’s will for our lives.

Tamar uses the word before her brother Ammon rapes her (2Sam 13) but a close reading shows that she is referring  to the shame she will endure, and not to the act which is denoted with the verb h.z.k ‘to seize or overpower’ and which is not used in the narrative around Dina.

The fact that Shechem loves her, speaks kindly to her, wants to marry her – all of this militates against their encounter being a forcible rape. But we don’t know what Dina really thinks – her voice is not recorded nor any action either – she is the object of a story that speaks not about her and her wishes but about the status of the family of Jacob.

The response of her brothers and the anger they show do not bespeak either love or concern for their sister. They are concerned only that she has been made lesser in some way, presumably in terms of her social status and her financial worth. And this will reflect upon them. We only have to think about the wrongly named ‘honour killings’ reported too frequently in our newspapers, which are never about the honour of the woman and only ever about the perceived status of the family to which the woman belonged.

Jacob is silent in the face of all of this, but his sons are not. When the family of Shechem come to organise a marriage they first come to Jacob while the sons are in the fields. He speaks of no anger, he simply waits for the boys to come home. But they are furious – the sexual act between Shechem and Dina is unacceptable to them  “v’chein lo ya’a’seh” This should not be done.

Hamor doesn’t seem to realise how angry the men are, how transgressive the act has been in their eyes. Instead he speaks again of Shechem’s feelings for Dina, asks for her hand in marriage, suggests that the two groups become allies and intermarry their children.  He offers a peaceful future, trading possibilities, living together in the land.  Then Shechem himself speaks – was he there all along? – and he proclaims that whatever they ask as a bride price he is willing to pay. He wants to build a good relationship with them, he wants to marry Dina.

The sons of Jacob answer Hamor and Shechem with slyness – in their eyes their sister has been defiled (t’mei), and the defiler is Shechem. They tell Hamor and Shechem that they cannot marry their sister to an uncircumcised man, so the condition is that every man should be circumcised, and if that is not acceptable they will go away from the land, and take Dina with them. But should they agree, then indeed they will intermarry  and become one people with the family of Shechem.

Shechem and Hamor go back and relay the information to their people. They speak of the peaceable nature of the children of Israel; they say the land is large enough for both groups to be there, they speak of the trade that will ensue between them, and of the marriages that will take place between the two groups.

There is only one jarring note in the text, when Hamor says “Shall not their cattle and their substance and all their beasts be ours?  ”This does not fit with the rest of the narrative which speaks of co-existence and of peacefulness.  There doesn’t seem to be a need for Hamor to increase his wealth by taking on that of the Israelites so what is the sentence doing in the text? It points up that marriage between tribes is always about property and money, they are alliances rather than being about romantic love. And it reads almost as an attempt to justify the actions that will happen shortly – that on the third day after the mass circumcision when the men were in pain, that Shimon and Levi came and slaughtered all of them, including Hamor and Shechem, and took Dina out of their house and, rather poignantly, the text says “va’yetzei’u”, echoing Dina’s original action of ‘tetzei’

They despoiled the city, took captives and all the wealth and the animals belonging to the people, and their father’s only response is to tell them that their actions have made Jacob’s continued position in the land dangerous. Their response ends the story – “should one treat our sister like a prostitute?”

This is a story not about a woman but about male power and identity expressed through their genitalia and the act of sex. It begins just after Jacob has been injured in the groin area by the angel, then comes the sexual act by Shechem who ‘takes’ Dina, then comes the mass circumcision ordered by Jacob’s sons, when the power of the people of Hamor and Shechem is at its lowest, this is followed by the death of Rachel in childbirth, and ends with the story of Reuven sleeping with his father’s concubine Bilha.

The story is sandwiched between the two accounts of Jacob changing his name to Israel – there seems to be some transitional process in which the maleness of the protagonists is both used and also tamed.  The centrality of the male organ can’t be ignored. Milah, the act of circumcision is used both for the male organ, for fruit bearing trees, and for the heart/mind. In bible the act of milah is often followed by increased fertility or life – Abraham only has Isaac after his circumcision for example – an uncircumcised heart does not cleave to God;  and it also curtails unbridled power.

The story of Dina seems to be a pretext on which to hang an ancient and powerful belief that has nothing to do with a young woman and everything to do with establishing and embedding a patriarchy.  Sadly this direction has been continued in midrashic rabbinic teachings – which say everything from blaming her for leaving the house at all, to suggesting she liked to be looked at, had dressed provocatively, had brought the whole thing upon herself. From this quickly comes a whole raft of halachic responsa curtailing the activities and the physicality of women. It seems to be one of the biggest ironies that a sidra dealing with both the fear of male power as symbolised in the male organ and the need to tame and curtail such power has in the midrash and general understanding of the story become one in which the woman is blamed and victimised. Poor Dina. We never find out what happened to her after this, though Midrash marries her to Job, and also suggests that a child born of her encounter with Shechem later marries Joseph in Egypt. The concern once again of the different stories in midrashic imaginings is to rehabilitate her of her ‘sin’ and to bring her descendants back into the chain of tradition. Poor Dina, judged and punished and brought back into the family without ever once having her own voice heard.

 

image Gerard Hoet Shimon and Levy slaying the men of Shechem