Sarai and the Silence Breakers
Once a month, I meet with about ten other Jewish girls as part of the Rosh Chodesh program. We drink tea, bake cookies, do mindful meditations, and kvetch. Most importantly though, we talk about the impact our female identities have on our daily lives and within Judaism. Earlier this month, over a batch of half-baked brownies, we discussed a Torah portion that rattled the foundation of my identity as a Jewish woman.
In Genesis 12:10-12:20, Abram and his wife Sarai go to Egypt to flee a famine. Abram asks Sarai to pretend to be his sister so that the Pharaoh might reward Abram because of her. Abram’s plan works, and when “the woman [Sarai] was taken to Pharaoh's palace,” Abram receives benefits from the Pharaoh. In other words, because Abram let Pharaoh sleep with Sarai (a situation made possible by the fact that Sarai was pretending to be Abram’s sister), Abram reaped benefits.
When I first read the line “through [Sarai] it did go well for Abram,” I wanted to be optimistic. Go Sarai, the first woman to succeed in the workplace! And in the Torah no less! But did she really succeed? As far as I can tell from the text, she never consented to Abram’s plan. Abram exploited his wife’s beauty and sexuality for economic gain. The midrash from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary explains that “the exchange of a woman has taken place.” Regardless of the fact that this text is part of Judaism, the religion I am committed to and hold dear, there’s no way that I, as a Jewish woman, can stand by the idea that it’s okay to treat women as possessions instead of people.
Rabbi Na’ama Dafni-Kellen of the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, Israel says that there are three ways to handle Jewish texts with which you profoundly disagree: One, you can ignore the text; two, you can put it in historical context; three, you can rewrite the passage so it aligns more closely with your point of view.
When I read this text with my Rosh Chodesh group, I found that I couldn’t get myself to ignore it. What did this text mean? What was its message? I needed to know. As a group, we put the text into a historical context. There isn’t anything uniquely sexist about Abram and his understanding of women as property and as economic currency–the Bible is just set in inherently sexist and patriarchal times.
We spent most of our meeting (and hours afterwards) focusing on the last step: rewriting the text to make it more palatable to us as Jewish women. That felt so wrong at first. By rewriting this text, how could we be doing anything but ignoring part of our history? We should grapple with it. We should feel uncomfortable about it. We should think about it again and again and again. We should write midrash! We should write midrash on the midrash.
According to the Torah, these events happened. Whether we like it or not, they are part of our tradition, and rewriting them so that they’re more to our liking doesn’t change that. Just because a story upsets me and makes me uncomfortable doesn’t mean that it should be swept under the rug. I don’t want a new story, I want more of this story. What happened next? Did Abram feel badly at all for what he did to his wife? Did Sarai feel betrayed or taken advantage of? Did this negatively affect Abram and Sarai’s relationship, and if so, did they work to get past it?
I have similar questions about the #MeToo Movement and all the sexual abuse allegations coming to light. Like Sarai, these women’s bodies have been exploited for the benefit of men, without their consent. Because of the many repercussions associated with women sharing their stories (not being believed, losing jobs, the fear of retaliation from abusers, etc…), they often stay hidden. But now, thanks to things like the #MeToo Movement and more widespread support of women coming forward, more of these stories are being told.
What happened next in Abram and Sarai’s story? We may never know. What will happen next in the still developing story about the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment in this country? Well, that’s up to all of us. Sarai’s circumstances and the time in which she lived granted her few rights at all, let alone space to share her story, but we’ve come to a moment in time when it seems that the floodgates have finally opened. We can’t rewrite history, but we can change the narrative around women who speak up about sexual assault by believing them, by supporting them, and by making it clear that what they endured is not, and will never be acceptable.
To help ensure that this historical movement remains grounded in the voices that sparked it, JWA is creating a #MeToo archive on jwa.org. We want to ensure that women’s stories are not erased or forgotten when it comes time to write the history of this watershed moment. Add your experience to this communal narrative today.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Harder, Natalie. "Sarai and the Silence Breakers." 26 January 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/sarai-and-silence-breakers>.