Miketz: the strange case of the disappearing women

Dr Ruchama Weiss points out that sidra Miketz is the first in Torah that is devoid of any stories of women : – she identifies it as the point at which bible begins to actively exclude women from the focus of the narrative. Over the fourteen years that the sidra spans in three and a half chapters of the book of Genesis, women are indeed conspicuous by their absence. The matriarchs have died, the only daughter of Jacob that we know of, the unfortunate Dina, has disappeared following her experiences with Shechem, no other daughters or indeed wives of the sons of Jacob are recorded here. They must have existed, but the biblical author does not see fit to document their presence.

There is in fact one woman who briefly makes an appearance – Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera a priest of On. Our introduction to her is laconic and almost imperceptible, she rates less than a third of the verse in which she appears, coming after the renaming of Joseph and before his status is recorded: “And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Potiphera priest of On. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.—“(41:5). She reappears five verses later as mother to Joseph’s two sons: “ And to Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came, whom Asenath the daughter of Potiphera priest of On bore unto him.” (41:50). She doesn’t get to name her sons, up till now the privilege of the mother, nor do we see her relationship with them – all we see is Joseph naming Manasseh and Ephraim in order to make statements about himself: “And Joseph called the name of the first-born Manasseh: ‘for God has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house. And the name of the second he called Ephraim: ‘for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’ (51,52)

Asenath

Her lonely presence in the sidra, useful only as a wife for Joseph and mother to his children, is picked up in the 6th century pseudepigraphical work “Joseph and Asenath” , though to be honest there too she is still the plaything and chattel of men. A pagan woman, she falls in love with Joseph and gives up her idolatry in a painful and protracted process in order to marry him and have his sons. Later the son of the Pharaoh tries to take her for himself but the plot is foiled, and Joseph takes the crown of Egypt. So there is not much more to her there either. She may be the daughter of a powerful priest of the Egyptian cult, the wife of the most powerful man in the country bar Pharaoh himself, the mother of the founders of the tribes of Ephraim and Menasse, but she is unknowable, mysterious and all but erased from history. Her fleeting presence in the sidra that is filled with the powerful men who control all the resources of the country only really serves to highlight the poignancy of her disappearance. And to complicate matters further, there are those who say that her presence in the sidra at all, inserted quite clumsily into the text as daughter, wife and mother, is only tolerated because she acts as a counterbalance to the physical beauty of Joseph which drives women into a sexual frenzy while he himself remains emotionally detached and essentially sexless. She is there as an answer to the questions about his sexuality, to put paid to any idea that he may not conform to the heteronormative ideal of the Hebrew bible.

This year – 2015 – is the eightieth anniversary of the private ordination of the first woman rabbi of modern times, Rabbiner Regina Jonas; and the fortieth anniversary of the ordination of the first woman to be given semicha by a European rabbinic institution (Leo Baeck College) Rabbi Dr Jackie Tabick.

One of the most shocking things about the life and times of Rabbiner Regina Jonas was how quickly she was forgotten after her death in Auschwitz in 1944. When I was studying at the Leo Baeck College in the 1980’s we knew only of rumours that there had been a woman who may or may not have been ordained Rabbi in Germany – even though some of the teachers and founders of the college had known her well. It was only with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of some of her papers and photographs from an archive that she once again became real. And now her life and name are being researched and reclaimed, yet there is so much that is lost beyond recall. She disappeared even while there were people alive to remember her. Her story is an object lesson, a cautionary tale, how quickly can the stories of people disappear if there is no interest, no will to record them and to keep them alive.

In the forty years that Rabbi Dr Jackie Tabick has been working as a rabbi the world has moved on. There is less anxiety (at least in the progressive Jewish world) about women working as rabbis, but still there are those individuals who ask for a male rabbi for a life cycle event, or synagogue search committees who worry what will happen to their community if a woman is appointed as rabbi, or as the senior rabbi.

So we should not be complacent and believe that the battle has been won. The erasing of the inconvenient from history goes on everywhere, and it is a truism history is written by the winners. If the narrator of the biblical text is not interested in the women then the stories of the women will not appear. If we don’t have a multiplicity of voices recording history as they see it, then we will have a thin and diminished version of history, seen through the narrowest of lenses. And this too has knock on effects. Because there are so few women fully described and fully voiced in our foundational texts, it is a short leap for some to believe that this must not be a function of the (lack of )interest of the narrator but a function of the divinely inspired status of women in society.

As the societal norms are impacting on Judaism, as the eightieth anniversary of the ordination of Regina Jonas and the fortieth of Jackie Tabick begin to filter into the consciousness of orthodox feminism, and as more Jewish women demand that their voice be heard, there is a corresponding kick back from some in the orthodox world. Only this week A senior haredi rabbi suggested at a conference for high school principals held in Bnei Brak that higher education for women constitutes a more severe blow to the haredi world than the Holocaust and a responsa was given to a man about letting his daughter go to university that “ to do so would be worse than stealing money since material goods may be recovered but the “spiritual damage” of permitting the young woman to achieve higher education could not be undone.”

The spiritual damage envisaged when a woman is allowed to study at a high level, to learn to think and question and understand the world around her is not to the woman herself – it is damage to the structure of a community which relies on unquestioning following of self-appointed sages. When people think for themselves, the artificial consensus breaks, and a real consensus, based on challenge and debate, logical argument and building of agreement is allowed to emerge. In sidra miketz the women are submerged in the narrative with just the flash of one woman’s presence that serves to point up all the absences. We should be warned, there is nothing new under the sun, and women are being ‘disappeared’ from public space in the Jewish world with increasing determination, just as they are in this sidra. In the book of Exodus the presence of women will reassert itself, but their silence as the book of Genesis begins to move towards its close is a telling one. And a nudge to us to take responsibility not to allow it to happen again.

Parashat Vayechi

On Friday evenings it is traditional to bless our children before making Kiddush. We place our hands on the head of each child, and for boys we say, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” For girls we say “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” And for all the children we add the Priestly Blessing, asking for God’s protection, blessing, and grace.

The biblical source for blessing sons at Kiddush comes from today’s parashah. A short time before Jacob dies, he meets Joseph’s children, his grandsons, and in an emotional scene, he says (Genesis 48:20): “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: ‘God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh…'” And so the Jewish people have been using that invocation to bless their children for centuries.

But the content of the blessing to Ephraim and Manasseh actually comes before Jacob speaks to them and the blessing seems to be given to their father initially – in verses 15 and 16, the Torah records: “And he [Jacob] blessed Joseph, saying, ‘The God in Whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God Who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day – The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm – Bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.'”

If this is a blessing for Ephraim and Manasseh, why does the text say, “And he blessed Joseph“?

The medieval commentator Nachmanides provides one answer: “. . .Jacob really wanted to bless his beloved Joseph;  and out of his love for Joseph, Jacob blessed his sons”.  And the 17th c scholar and kabbalist Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz comments: “[Jacob blessed Joseph] in order to show that there is no greater blessing for a father than the wish that his children should take after him and become good people”.

Whatever the reason, Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh were all blessed by Jacob.

The language that he uses in his interaction with the Egyptian influenced Joseph and his completely Egyptian sons is interesting. From his perspective at the end of life, Jacob understands that God has been his Shepherd from his birth and throughout his life, watching over him during his difficult physical and emotional journeys. And so he wishes for Ephraim and Manasseh that same sense of protection and security. Nachmanides  suggests that the word for shepherd, “ro’eh“, may be related to the word “ray’ah“, friend and that in referring to God as “ro’eh,” Jacob is also wishing the blessings of  friendship on Ephraim and Manasseh.

The image of the Angel, who “has redeemed me from all harm” is traditionally understood literally – Jacob certainly has encountered redeeming angels in his lifetime (on the ladder at Beit El when he left home precipitously, and at the Ford of Jabok the night before meeting Esau when he returned home after 20 years), but ultimately an angel is a messenger of God, and as Rashi understands it, it was God whowas with Jacob in his times of trouble. And this, then, is the particular blessing for Ephraim and Manasseh: that God should be with them, protecting them, encouraging them and supporting them in their times of trouble.

The third portrayal: “The God in Whose ways my father Abraham and Isaac walked” is seen as more than just descriptive to 13th Century scholar David Kimchi (Radak).  To him “Walking with God” means serving God in heart and deed, and Radak believes that the root of this service is in the heart. Jacob is thus understood to be praying that Ephraim and Manasseh walk in God’s ways, in their thoughts, intentions, sincerity and day-to-day deeds. What God wants from them should never be far from their minds.

And finally, Jacob prays (Genesis 48:16): “In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.”Nachmanidestells us that this means that for Ephraim and Manasseh “their descendants and their names should exist forever, and the name of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob should forever be upon them.”

All these traditional understandings give us a rich insight into what was in the mind of Jacob, – he was blessing both the oldest son of his beloved wife Rachel and also the descendants of that son with the friendship and nurturing of God, with the protection and encouragement of God, and with the ability to serve God with complete sincerity, and these are things we want for all our children.

But what is so special about Ephraim and Manasseh that we pray to make our children like them? The Torah itself gives us shockingly little information about these two brothers, the sons of Jacob’s favourite son, Joseph, and Joseph’s Egyptian wife, Asenat. We know that they lived their entire lives in Egypt, that Manasseh is the older of the two (although some scholars suggest they might have been twins), that they were born before the famine came to Egypt, and that Genesis and Chronicles disagree a bit about whether one of Manasseh’s descendants was his son or grandson. Otherwise, all we have are conjectures based on this one scene at their grandfather’s deathbed.

What was Jacob thinking? What was he doing in adopting Joseph’s two sons as his own and effectively transgressing the generational boundary? And why, after adopting them in verse 5, does he suddenly notice them in verse 8 and ask, “Who are these?”

Jacob is altering the system of inheritance in so many ways in this action – he in effect disinherits Joseph in favour of the two grandchildren, who each become a sort of half-tribe. And then he crosses over his arms while blessing the boys, symbolizing the reversal of the usual pattern of bestowing the greater blessing on the older son. Joseph – the older brother of Rachel’s two boys – protests, but Jacob—a younger brother himself, is happy to subvert the position of the older brother.  He’ll bless in his own way, giving priority to the younger son as he himself took priority from his older brother. The scene is reminiscent of his own parental blessing, when his blind father also asked

 who it was who was to be blessed, but here everything is explicit and open. It seems that this blessing is less about God acting as supporter, nurturer and protector, and more about the people doing the blessing and those accepting the blessing.

So why Ephraim and Manasseh? Perhaps because they were the first children who had to maintain their identity in a foreign land. Or perhaps because they were the first brothers in the Bible to get along peaceably … Now that siblings have learned to get along, the story of the Jewish people can move to the next stage.

In our time, Rabbi Harold Kushner sees a blessing that is surely relevant for ourselves and our children today: When we say to our children that we would like them to be like Ephraim and Manasseh, two Egyptian born and raised young men, who are yet able to be part of the family of Israel, we are maybe asking for them to maintain their Jewish identities while living fully within our non-Jewish society. May they be like Ephraim and Manasseh, living complex lives with integrity, being fully themselves.

Kushner also sees a blessing in the boys’ relationship with each other. He suggests they become a source of blessing “because they were the first brothers in the Bible to have a good relationship, after the conflicts that marred the lives of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers.” So it’s possible the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh is one of peace and acceptance. When Jacob crosses his hand to bestow the greater blessing on the younger boy, neither boy complains (although their father does). They accept the blessing they are given, and given the lack of a story of brotherly strife, we assume it did not harm their relationship.

Whatever is behind the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh, the blessing that we are to repeat to our own sons each week – whether it is an incantation designed to protect our children by calling on God to care for them, or an aspiration that they will grow to live their lives in harmonious relationships, or that they will understand their complex identities in a diverse world, or a formula to remind them of their place in the chain of tradition that connects them to both ancestors and descendants – this is a complex and beautiful ritual.

The blessing to Joseph and his sons is wonderful, and a stark contrast to the blessings Jacob will bestow on his own sons shortly before his death. He must have looked into the future of his grandchildren and seen for them a world where they would carry the message and the memory of the patriarchal promise, the covenant with God. While we may wonder what exactly Jacob understood and hoped for his grandchildren, we should take the opportunity to think too about what we pray for today when we bless our own children. What do we want for our children and what do we want for the children of our community and our society?  

While we live, we can invoke and provide a blessing for the next generations. How we choose to do it is up to us.