Shabbat seems to be exactly the right time to take a break from Brexit and the forthcoming general election. So, today I would like to explore a different pressing contemporary issue. It also happens to be a very ancient issue, featuring centre-stage in the stories from Genesis that we are reading at the moment: Gender.

On the one hand, in the past fifty years, huge strides have been made in gender equality – in the western and northern regions of the world, and on those west-leaning islands in the south of Australia and New Zealand – not least, in the context of mainstream educational provision, ensuring that girls are free to excel in all areas of the curriculum and so can aspire to become, lawyers, doctors, scientists and engineers. On the other hand, there’s a long list of items that tell a very different story: the stubborn tenacity of a ‘pink for girls, blue for boys’ mentality relentlessly promoted in the retail industry; recent revelations about the persistent gender pay gap; the glass-ceiling for women that hangs over most areas of employment still; domestic abuse; the sexual abuse of children; the ongoing menace of sexual harassment and abuse exposed through the #MeToo movement – highlighted in the past two weeks in relation to the Jeffrey Epstein case; the sex-trafficking of women, girls and boys; the persecution of transgender women. All these ‘facts’ about gender relations, make it clear that patriarchal assumptions and practices still rule the day – and the night. And I’m only talking about what continues to go on in so-called ‘enlightened’, ‘progressive’ societies. 

It’s hard not to feel very depressed – and yet reality is more complex than this list of horrors suggests. Yes, male power still persists, but much has also changed. To be more precise: the circumstances of life for those whom the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir referred to as the ‘other’ in her ground-breaking book, Le Deuxième Sexe – The Second Sex, first published in 1949,[1] haven’t just ‘changed’; women have taken action to change their lives. More of that in a moment.

This week we are reading the parashah, Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah. The parashah begins with the death of Sarah, but the opening words invite us to think about the life of Sarah. We read at the beginning of Genesis chapter 23: Va-yih’yu chayyei Sarah, mei’ah shanah v’esrim shanah v’sheva shanim; sh’nei chayyei Sarah – ‘The life of Sarah was 127 years; these were the years of the life Sarah.’ What does the Torah tell us about the life of Sarah? The tale of the ancestors of the Jewish people begins at parashat Lech L’cha with Avram – as he was called at that point – responding to the call of the Eternal One and leaving his land, his kindred and his father’s house. We read in Genesis 12 (:5): ‘And Avram took Sarai his wife – as Sarah was called then – and Lot his brother’s son…’ Sarah – and Lot – taken. But Sarah proved to be an actor in her own right. When she was unable to bear a child, Lech L’cha tells us at chapter 16 (:2): “So, Sarai said to Avram: ‘Behold now, the Eternal One has restrained me from bearing; go in, please to my handmaid; perhaps I shall be built up through her.’ And Avram listened to the voice of Sarah.” It wasn’t the last time that Abraham listened to his wife’s voice. When as we read in Genesis chapter 21, Sarah finally conceived and bore her own child, Isaac, threatened by the presence of her husband’s first son, Ishmael, in the household, she told Abraham (21:10): ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; the son of this slave woman should not be heir with my son, with Isaac.’ Abraham was very upset. But then we read (21:12): “And God said to Abraham: ‘Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad and because of your slave woman; in everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to you.’”

Sarah was an actor; she was not acted upon. Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian handmaid also took action. When newly pregnant, Sarah treated her harshly, Hagar took flight into the wilderness and then chose to return in the certain knowledge that God had listened to her. We read in chapter 16 (:11): “The messenger of the Eternal One said to her: ‘Behold, you are with child, and shall bear a son; you shall call his name Yishma’el because the Eternal One has heard your affliction.’” Yishma’el means: ‘God shall hear’.

If there was more time, we could explore the story of Rebekah, which begins in this week’s parashah – arguably, an even more important and decisive actor in the narrative of our ancestors than Sarah – and the tales of Leah and Rachel, too. The stories of women as decisive actors continues beyond Genesis. Generations later, Miriam, the elder sister of Aaron and Moses, entirely independent because she was not married, took a pre-eminent role in the Exodus.[2] What we learn from these ancient tales is relevant for our understanding of the complexity of gender relations today. Children, by definition, subject to the absolute power of their parents and the decisions their parents make about their lives, may be victims, but grown women are never simply victims, unless they are, quite literally, imprisoned by the circumstances of their lives.

Each year, when Chayyei Sarah is the parashah of the week, I always think of my mother, who died on the Sunday night following Shabbat Chayyei Sarah on 3rd November 1991 – 27th Cheshvan, according to the Hebrew calendar. This year, 27th Cheshvan falls after sunset on Sunday. My mother, who was beautiful and vibrant and had a wonderful contralto singing voice, who could recite huge chunks of Shakespeare and scores of poems off by heart, and became an actor in the Spiro Yiddish Theatre Group, nevertheless, saw herself as a victim. Despite having a strong speaking voice, she never challenged her husband’s tyrannical behaviours, let alone asserted herself in his presence. Having left school when she was evacuated, aged 17, and not gone back, she had no saleable skills in the marketplace. On top of this, having experienced multiple losses during her childhood and then the loss of her first husband during the Second World War, when she was only 19, she had no sense of her own volition. She did leave her marriage for 18 months when confronted with aspects of her husband’s conduct she had not previously been aware of, and went to work in a women’s clothes shop owned by one of her sisters – but then she went back to him when I went off to university in the autumn of 1973. She simply could not manage on her own. In 1984, my father suffered a severe stroke the day after her 61st birthday that left him paralysed on his right side and unable to speak. Just over six years later my mother died of lung cancer, aged 68. He lived another six and a half years and died on my birthday, aged 83.

My mother was an extraordinary ordinary woman of her time. How many women, who were married after the war and had their children in the 1950s, were able to realise themselves and participate in the world beyond their domestic environment? They were constrained and confined by the social and cultural mores of their time. Perhaps, that’s the greatest change that has taken place in the past 50+ years; women going out to work – and not just for ‘pin money’ – and so, gaining a new perspective on their lives and new ambitions beyond being wives and mothers. Nevertheless, although she saw herself as a victim, my mother did have choices. She chose to go back to her husband. I understand the choice she made and why she made it. But she could have made another choice. It would have been very hard, but she would have been free to walk her own path, however challenging that path might have been.

Of course, the past is the past. But there are lessons to be learned. When we survey the Jewish past, we can find exceptional women who defied patriarchal boundaries – like B’ruria, the wife of 2nd century Sage, Rabbi Meir, whose scholarship was so remarkable, some of her teachings are even recorded in the Talmud, that early 6th century compendium of male rabbinic scholarship.[3] More recently, there was Rabbi Regina Jonas, who was, in her own words, ‘the one and only woman Rabbi’, and was ordained in Germany on 27th December 1935.[4] But being an exception, by definition, means singularity. There were no spiritual descendants of B’ruria, or of Regina Jonas. Subsequent generations of rabbis defamed B’ruria and the refugee German rabbis who survived the Sho’ah never mentioned Regina Jonas, who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. It took the first generation of women rabbis, ordained in the 1970s and 80s to ‘discover’ these exceptional women.

It is when we think of these exceptional singular women alongside the millions of isolated ordinary women like my mother that we can see that there has been a massive transformation in gender relations – brought about by collective action. From the strike of women workers at Ford Dagenham in 1968 that led directly to the 1970 Equal Pay Act[5] to the development of the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation movements in the 1970s that established communities of activism that led to significant changes in the lives of women and LGBT people, and in the law in this country – including, the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act[6], equalisation of the age of consent in 2000[7], the Gender Recognition Act in 2004,[8] the Civil Partnership Act which came into force in 2005[9] and the Marriage Equality (Same Sex) Act of 2013[10].

The changes we have seen in the past five decades haven’t just been apparent in the wider society, they’ve also been evident in the Jewish world. In 1991, women rabbis in Britain – there were only 15 of us at the time – set up the Half-Empty Bookcase, a Jewish women’s educational project aimed at increasing the knowledge, confidence and participation of women in congregational life and and promoting Jewish women’s scholarship. Similar initiatives were already taking place at the time United States. Back then, the bookcase of Jewish life was half empty because save for a few exceptional books[11], 99% of Jewish literature was written by men. Today the bookcase is crammed full of Jewish women’s scholarship. In addition to two books produced by British women rabbis – Hear Our Voice edited by Sybil Sheridan[12] and Taking up the Timbrel edited by Sylvia Rothschild and Sybil Sheridan[13] – and my own modest contribution, which includes Women Rabbis in the Pulpit. A collection of sermons, edited with Rabbi Dr Barbara Borts,[14] there are works by scores of Jewish women rabbis and scholars. One of the most immediate ways to appreciate the scale, breadth and depth of Jewish women’s scholarship today is to pick up The Torah. A Women’s Commentary, edited by Dr Tamara Eskenazi and Rabbi Dr Andrea L. Weiss, which runs to 1350 pages. All the books I’ve just mentioned can be found in the synagogue library.[15]

So, how do we make sense of the changes we have seen in gender relations, both, within Jewish life and in the wider society, alongside all the examples I mentioned earlier of the persistence of male power and the oppression of women and girls? Perhaps, all we can say is that change takes a long time to be embedded in the hearts and minds and reflexes of people – especially, when many men still have a vested interest in the patriarchal status quo. I think there has to be a complex interaction between individuals taking responsibility for their own lives and engaging with others to participate in collective transformation. Perhaps, if my mother had known at least one other woman, who had left her oppressive marriage and taken action to change her life, they could have supported one another along the way to independence. I remember moving into a bedsit in 1980, in a house owned by a Jewish woman in her 60s, who would only have women as tenants. When she interviewed me for the room, she told me a little bit about her life, including the fact that she had left her husband a few years earlier and gone to live in a bedsit herself. I remember thinking: I should introduce you to my Mum – but I didn’t do it. Perhaps, if I had, it would have made all the difference…

One of the most positive developments of the past few years has been the challenge to the gender binary that underlies the institutionalisation of male power. Perhaps, if, regardless of their biological gender, young people could simply be themselves on their own terms, wearing what they like, expressing themselves in their own ways, exploring their interests without being channelled in one direction or another by the gender-bind, being female or male would not carry with it the same burden of assumptions and expectations. As I mentioned in my Rosh Ha-Shanah morning sermon, I’m proud that the Council of the synagogue endorsed the decision taken by the education committee at the beginning of last year to offer our young people the non-gendered option of B’ Mitzvah alongside Bat Mitzvah and Bar Mitzvah. May this congregation always be a beacon of equality and inclusion, celebrating all the different individuals, couples and families who choose to find a home amongst us. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

23rd November 2019 – 25th Cheshvan 5780

  1. The Second Sex was first published in English by Jonathan Cape in 1953, and subsequently, by Penguin Books in 1972.

  2. See chapter 2 of my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, 2012): Why Miriam Spoke Against Moses: An untold Story.

  3. See chapter 3 of Trouble-Making Judaism: B’ruria: A Suitable Case for Mistreatment.

  4. See chapter 4 of Trouble-Making Judaism: Fräulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas and the Mysterious Disappearance of the First Woman Rabbi







  11. The first two books to make a mark were: On Women and Judaism by Blu Greenburg (JPSA, 1981) and On Being a Jewish Feminist edited by Susanna Heschel (Schocken Books, 1983)

  12. SCM Press, 1994.

  13. SCM press, 2000.

  14. Kulmus Publications, 2015.

  15. Published by Women of Reform Judaism and the Union of Reform Judaism Press in New York in 2008.