Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Z"L
It’s been a couple of weeks since the feminist biblical scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky passed away, and I find myself returning to her work as a way of honoring her memory. I didn’t know her well, but I have learned a great deal from her writing (particularly Reading the Women of the Bible and Motherprayer) and have used her scholarship in my own teaching.
With Rosh HaShanah fast approaching, I’ve been thinking particularly about her insights on the story of Sarah and Hagar (which is traditionally read on the first day of Rosh HaShanah). To me, this is one of the most troubling texts of the Torah: a (rare) story that centers on the lives of two women, and instead of modeling sisterhood, they turn against one another – Sarah uses her status as Abraham’s wife to degrade and banish Hagar the maidservant, and Hagar uses her fertility to humiliate Sarah.
Frymer-Kensky reminds us that there is a lot to be learned from this story about the nature of power and about our relationships with other peoples. She points out allusions that identify Hagar with the Children of Israel: she is an Egyptian slave; her “degradation” by Sarah is described in the same language in which the Israelite slaves are degraded; God hears Hagar’s suffering; she wanders in the desert; and God promises her a nation from her offspring. Sound familiar? These textual parallels hint that, as she says, “the story of Sarah and Hagar is not a story of the conflict between ‘us’ and ‘other,’ but between ‘us’ and ‘another us.’”
I find this to be a powerful lesson with which to begin the new year. Most of us tend to approach the process of teshuva (repentance) in very personal terms: what does MY life mean? What will MY future hold? The story of Sarah and Hagar reminds us that we have a responsibility to think about our own lives in a larger context, and to be aware of the delicate dynamics of power and powerlessness as they play out in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
This is not a new insight – it’s one that those who have participated in or studied social movements like feminism or civil rights know all too well – but it’s definitely worth repeating. I thank Tikva Frymer-Kensky for her sensitive and politically-engaged reading, and hope that her memory will continue to be a blessing.