Women's Voices

Erev Rosh HaShanah 5779
Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

My beloved wife, Marianne, has said repeatedly, that my sense of direction is so bad, that I would get lost even if I had a compass and a boy-scout with me. She is correct.  Drop me anywhere in the world and I am hopelessly lost.  So when GPS was invented, my life took a turn – a correct one. I have been through all iterations of Tom-Toms and now with my iPhone, I am totally indebted to that great Israeli contribution: Waze (I am happy to tell you all the reasons that Waze is better than Google Maps and every other GPS guidance system – at another time). So, when I turn on Waze and input my destination, into my Bluetooth, I hear the soothing and confident tone of a woman, guiding me to my destination.  And I listen to her without hesitation, even if she steers me on a new and uncharted route.

If you have an iPhone, you have probably listened to Siri.  If you have Windows on your computer, you have met Cortana.  Amazon has made Alexa a presence in many homes I visit. Bank of America is just now rolling out its digital assistant, Erica.

Siri, Waze, Alexa, Erica – all default to women’s voices.  Yes, you can change the voices, but few do –  and we take direction and guidance from these “female” digital assistants.

But how attentively do we listen to real women’s voices? And when they tell us what to do, when they speak with authority and in declarative sentences, do we listen? Do we even hear?

During the last Presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton was on the campaign trail, Amy Chozick wrote in the NY Times (“Hillary Clinton Raises her Voice, and a Debate over Speech and Sexism Rages” Feb 4, 2016), “the tendency to yell on the campaign stump is not gender specific, but the public is much less accustomed to hearing a woman’s voice in such settings.”  And Clinton herself remarked, “Sometimes when a woman speaks out, some people think it’s shouting.” And because women’s voices are higher pitched than men’s, women’s voices when speaking declaratively, are described as “shrill” or “screeching” – making it easy to dismiss the content of the message, because of the delivery. Ann Helen Peterson, author of “Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of Unruly Women” points out our culture’s unwillingness to take women at face value – and those who fight through to be heard, to be seen, to be taken seriously, fight an almost unwinnable battle.

While its roots go back to 2006, when black activist Tarana Burke wished she had responded to a 13 year old girl’s story about being sexually abused by simply saying, “Me Too” it was October 15, 2017 when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted #MeToo on twitter to describe her own experience of sexual assault.  By the end of the day, over 200,000 tweets featured #MeToo.  I would ask parathetically, why did it take a white actor to popularize the plaint of a Black activist? And why was #MeToo so powerful?  Because it was so necessary – the stories of the suffering experienced by women were being told – but they were not being heard.  For years women complained about abusive treatment, but the complaints fell on deaf ears. Voices that are ignored are as if they never were.

This is not a new phenomenon.  It has its roots in our own sacred texts – because society has been ignoring the voices of women for millennia.

Tomorrow morning we will read again the heart-rending story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his beloved son Isaac.  But what did Sara make of all of this? Did she learn of Abraham’s plans before hand?  Did she object? Argue? And when this near-death experience of her son was over, the text tells us that Abraham alone returned to Beer Sheva – if Sara knew what was to happen, and Abraham returns alone, wouldn’t she conclude that Abraham went through with it?  What did she say? Did she scream? All we know from the text is that when Abraham returned alone, Sara died.  Did she die of a broken heart? Of anger and rage? Her voice is silent — it is absent from the text.

In fact, most women in the Bible are silent.  The only time we hear them is when they rage – when they are shrill – When Rebekah complains about twins fighting in her womb; when Sara and Rachel and Hannah cry out about being barren; when Dina and Tamar are raped; when Miriam complains about her brother Moses.  Or we hear women when they are unruly, like Deborah or Esther. But where else are the women?  Don’t they have important messages for us?

Judith Plaskow in her book “Standing Again at Sinai” (published in 1990, based upon an article first published in 1986) wrote:

There is perhaps no verse in Torah more disturbing to the feminist than Moses’ warning to his people in Exodus 19:15, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.” For here, at the very moment that the Jewish people stand at Mount Sinai ready to enter into the covenant – not now the covenant with the individual patriarchs but presumably with the people as a whole – Moses addresses the community only as men.  The specific issue is ritual impurity: an emission of semen renders both a man and his female partner temporarily unfit to approach the sacred (Leviticus 15:16-18).  But Moses does not say, “Men and women do not go near each other.” At the central moment of Jewish history, women are invisible.  It was not their experience that interested the chronicler or that informed and shaped the text.

Robert Bank, the new President and CEO of the American Jewish World Service, who took over after the retirement of the visionary leader, Ruth Messinger, has traveled to see the impact of programs they have helped to put into place to combat sexual harassment in Central America, South America, Africa and Eurasia. AJWS has long recognized that the voices of those outside of the US are even more ignored than those in our own land. In an article entitled, “Reconciling Local and Global Responsibilities in the #MeToo Movement” (August 2, 2108 eJewishPhilanthropy) he concludes: “In 1968, the Jewish lesbian poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Since that time, countless women have shared countless truths, as they do today. The world has most certainly split open. Now it’s our job to seize the momentum of courageous women who are speaking out and build a new world order together.”

Since Judith Plaskow’s ground-breaking book, “Standing Again At Sinai,” Jewish theologians and Biblical scholars have been trying to reclaim women’s voices in Torah (here, read as the corpus of Jewish scriptures).  Rachel Adler, Sarah Sager, Ellen Umansky, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Carol Meyers, Andrea Weiss, Elyse Goldstein on the liberal side; Blu Greenberg, Aviva Zornberg on the traditional side all have wrestled with the text to raise questions about the text as handed down to us, and the voices silenced and ignored, that fight to be heard.

This has led to a surfeit of books and commentaries seeking to lift up the voices once silenced.  Following in the steps of the ground-breaking work commissioned by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now URJ) to create the first Torah text with historic and contemporary commentaries in over a century, known as “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” first published in 1980, the Women of Reform Judaism commissioned the writing of “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” published in 2008.

And while this reclamation process has thrived, one must note that this is not a rejection of the text as handed down to us, but an expansion of the text which comes from listening deeply.  Here, too, this is part if the tradition of Jewish exegesis.  Classic Jewish scholarship never contents itself with a study of the “pshat” or surface level of the text.  The word Midrash, often thought of as simply creative glosses on the literal meaning of the text, comes from the word Lidrosh – to demand – to demand of the text.  We must drill down and explore the deeper meaning, often hidden in and behind the words on the scroll or in the book.  These Midrashim, explications, fill in the lacunae – the story holes – in the text. And generations of rabbis have created midrashim to discover the meaning of the Torah’s message.  So what these feminist scholars have endeavored to do is to use the classic tools of Jewish study to restore women’s voices to fill in the lacunae left by generations of a patriarchy that, as Plaskow points out, cared little for chronicling women’s contributions that could have further informed and shaped the text.

Next Friday morning, we will have an opportunity to gather for adult study, and we will look at a few passages of Torah and see how this process unfolds. And we will also explore what we think might have been contributed by the women who witnessed and participated in the events chronicled in Torah, as we become part of the process of restoring voices long ago silenced.

As we start to listen to the silenced voices of our heritage, how can we apply these principles to the challenges of our own time.  Certainly, the Women’s March on Washington of January 2017, and the subsequent marches that occurred all over (including one in front of the Atheneum) have caused us to sit up and take notice.  Both the MeToo movement and the #MeToo twitter rallying cry have caused those who once turned a deaf ear to the plight of women who have been abused to listen, and in a growing number of instances, to act.

And yet, with the growing number of women who have, thankfully, entered into the political fray, there are still those who think of their voices as too loud or too shrill.  It is up to us to counter these attempts at dismissing the content of the message because of the pitch of the delivery.  We must learn to listen, to hear, the voices who speak with authority, with vision, with clarity an octave or two above what we once considered auditory gravitas. Even the word “gravitas” connotates deep, resonant, weighty, serious. Women can and do speak with wisdom and with vision, and it is up to us to listen, to hear.

And I do present one question for you to ponder: how would you react to this message being delivered by a rabbi who was a woman?  Would it change the content or the message?

We owe all women, those of the past, the present and the future –  and not just our wives and daughters and granddaughters, but women of color, of all socio-economic and cultural strata — at least the attention we pay to those digital assistants that guide us, inform us or respond to our requests.  We owe all women the attention that true equality and equity demands.

And so, after the events on Mount Moriah, Abraham alone returns to Beer Sheva. And then Sarah dies.  What did she say before her death? How did she react to seeing her husband return alone without her beloved son?  She can either remain silent, or we can restore her voice – as we listen to what she has to say, along with all other women whose voices where once silenced or ignored  – including those who can lead, teach and inform us today.

Kayn Yehee Ratzon – May this, too, be God’s will.

Shana Tova U’metuka

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