Sermon: Shabbat Chanukah – Finding the Women in our Story

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 16 December 2017

Bexy, I am delighted to have been able to stand with you this morning, as you read Torah, taking your place as a full Jewish adult in our community. I am – we should all be – hugely proud to be a generation of Jews, and a part of the Jewish world, in which women stand equally with men, fully part of shaping the Jewish story.

But while this is true, we should also recognise the challenges that come with it, including the challenge of text.   When you read Torah this morning, not a woman featured in the story.  Nor, most often, do women appear when we tell the story of Chanukah that we celebrate this week.  Our bookcase, to use the famous expression sits half empty.

In our Torah portion, the female members of Jacob and Joseph’s households have disappeared.  Rachel has died.  Her status as the specially loved wife of Jacob means that this detail is preserved for us. But about Leah we know almost nothing.  We will discover towards the end of Genesis that she pre-deceased Jacob, but when and how, we are not told.  Her son is taken hostage in Egypt, but when the brothers return to Canaan without him, we are told only of Jacob’s reaction: “You have deprived me of my children”, he says. Nor will we hear much more of Bilhah or Zilpah.  What matters is that they have produced sons. Their task fulfilled, they, to all intents and purposes, vanish from the story.  The most significant female actor in the whole Joseph narrative is Potiphar’s wife. And, in common with women in much of ancient literature, she acts as a threat, using her sexuality to attempt to derail the mission, to lead our hero astray.

Similarly, in the story of the Maccabees which we commemorate at Chanukah, the stars of the show are men.  What was the name of Judah Maccabee’s mother?  Did he have sisters?  Were women actively involved in the campaign against oppression?  The accounts we recite are largely silent, as are the stories we tell to our children.

Both the Torah myth-narratives, and the more ‘historical’ accounts of the Hasmonean Revolt, are male books.  Written by men, about men, and for men.  In these foundational stories, women did not count.  They were individually valued (at least in Rachel’s case) but public life was the sphere of men. And our stories reflect this.

Is this a problem?
For those of us who seek to create a rich Judaism that is capable of translating into the modern world, it surely is.  Fundamental to the Jewish exercise is the belief that our text is able to speak across the generations, to continue to shape our lives.  It does so despite containing many features – sacrifice, slavery, priesthood – which alienate us.  But nowhere is the dissonance greater, nowhere do we experience a greater gap between our everyday reality and that described by the text, than in the role, or lack thereof, of women.

Can it therefore be any surprise that thoughtful, successful women, who would tolerate inequality in no other area of their lives, are willing to be peripheral, hidden behind a wall, in their synagogues?  Can it be any surprise that we live in a Jewish world that often renders women’s activity invisible, for women do not exist in the public sphere?  The acceptance of women’s absence in our formative literature translates directly into literal invisibility in parts of today’s Jewish world.

This is not a new concern.  It is almost 30 years since the first generation of Jewish feminist theologians, such as Rachel Adler and Judith Plaskow, first identified the problem; this “dramatic discontinuity with the past” as Plaskow put it.  But the issue remains.  We have failed significantly to address this textual absence.  Almost 30 years ago, Judith Plaskow wrote that, “we must render visible the presence, experience and deeds of women erased in traditional sources”.  That remains a real task for us today.

If we look closely at our texts we find that often there are women there, if only we look for them.  The early rabbinic text Seder Olam Rabbah identifies seven biblical characters as prophetesses.  Seven female characters identified by the early rabbinic exercise as having an especially significant role in the narrative, having direct communication with God.  Similarly, we find references in our narratives to a number of women – named and unnamed – who play significant roles, for good or for ill, without attaining prominence: Tamar in Genesis 38; the wise women of Second Samuel; Rahab, Michal, Rizpah; Abigail; the anonymous woman of Shunem.  And if you don’t know to whom I’m referring, that rather proves the point.

And in midrash, the creative rabbinic exercise of interpretation and expansion of the text, we also find women placed back into the story.  Our task as Progressive Jews is to do the same, to place them back in our story, to give them new prominence: to use their examples as our haftarot; to teach them in our shuls; to help them to find their place in our worship.  The inclusion of the matriarchs in our liturgy and Miriam into the ge’ulah, are good examples of a successful exercise to reclaim the role of women in our narrative.

And similarly at Chanukah.  It is rather an odd fact about our celebration of Chanukah that we seek out women in the story less now than was the case in the Middle Ages.   In the Middle Ages, the apocryphal story of Judith was widely associated with Chanukah, rewritten and retold.  Rabbinic and later literature references the story from second Maccabees of the martyrdom of Hannah and her seven sons.  According to one version of Chanukah from the tenth/eleventh century, it was Mattathias’s daughter, also Hannah, rather than her father who inspired the Maccabees to act against persecution, challenging them to respond to the introduction of ‘first night privileges’.  Our ancestors were keen to emphasise the importance of Chanukah not only for men, but for women too.  In the eleventh century, a paytan – a writer of liturgical poetry – called Yosef bar Shlomo of Carcassone wrote a whole piyyut, Odecha Ki Anafta Bi, for the morning of Shabbat Chanukah dedicated to these women.

We too are gifted their stories, if only we would tell them.

If we want a Judaism that is full and rich, fit for all of our children, capable of sustaining us in the modern world, we must render the women in our stories visible once again.  And we must seek them out as our role models, as examples in our lives.

Bexy, this morning, as you celebrate becoming Bat Mitzvah, as with all our B’not Mitzvah, this task falls on you.
Your task is to take the women in our story to be your role models: to be Hannah – inspiring action in the face of injustice; to be Judith, acting on behalf of your people.
Your task is to tell their stories, and the stories of other women in our texts, to refill the bookcase.
Your task is to take your place in the Jewish world, and never ever to be willing to be invisible.
And our task?  Our task is to create a Jewish community where we do not ask you to be.