VaYeshev – Feminism

Some day, every human being will be accepted for who they are, and empowered to become the most they can be.

A voice is heard on the heights.  Weeping, bitter wailing. Rachel is crying for her children.  She refuses to be comforted for her children, for they are gone.  (Jeremiah 31:15)

Rachel, Jacob’s second and more beloved wife, was the foremother of the northern tribes of Israel. The prophet Jeremiah imagined beautiful Rachel crying for her children, as they were carted off to slavery by the Assyrian army.  The words may be familiar because we read them in the Haftarah of second day Rosh Hashanah.

But Rachel never actually saw the land that her children would inherit and then lose.  She was born in Mesopotamia – the land that Abraham had left two generations back when he embarked on his journey of faith to settle in the promised land. Jacob had planned to bring his entire family back with him, but Rachel became pregnant en route with their second child, Benjamin, and she died in childbirth, as we read in this week’s Torah portion.

When her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Have no fear, for it is another boy for you.”  As she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named him Ben-oni (son of my suffering) ; but his father called him Benjamin (son of my right hand).     (Genesis 35:17-18)

There was nothing unusual in that story.  Throughout most of human history, somewhere between 1 in 30 and 1 in 8 women ultimately died in childbirth. Think about what that means.  When we hear the news that a friend is pregnant, in most cases we are overjoyed for them.  I remember one of the best things about the later stages of my pregnancies was the way strangers would smile when they saw me.  They were sharing in a piece of my delight.  But what would I have been feeling if I knew there was a really good chance I would not survive the experience?

Put that information together with one of the other major episodes in Rachel’s life. She was initially infertile, and she was desperate to become pregnant. 

She said to Jacob, “Give me sons, for if not I am dead.” (Genesis 30:1)

Throughout the Tanach, the barren woman praying for a child is the ultimate expression of human yearning. In ancient times, women’s self-worth was so tied up with their fertility, women who could not conceive were desperate to do so despite what a dangerous proposition it was.

And, not just in ancient times.  Lara Freidenfelds, a friend of mine who is a historian of women’s health, just published a book documenting the history of pregnancies in America. In her book, The Myth of the Perfect Pregnancy, She notes that: “Colonial American women’s lives, like those of their contemporaries in much of the early modern world, revolved around childbearing.”  Women could expect to spend most of their adult lives either pregnant or nursing.  They were given, “appreciation, respect and authority when they had babies.”

The maternal death rate remained high until the 1930s, when sulfa antibiotics became available.  In the United States, from 1873 until 1936 – and much later in some states – selling or distributing birth control was illegal. Women had no choice.  If they were married or otherwise sexually active, their lives were dominated by the dangers and hardships of pregnancy. 

Holding this long and distressing history in one hand, let’s turn to the other “women’s” story in this week’s Torah portion – the rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah. 

Dinah, the daughter of Leah, who was born to Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. (Genesis 34:1) 

In a breathtaking example of blaming the victim, Rashi notes that she is referred to as her mother’s daughter, rather than her father’s, because, like her mother, she was too forward.  Shechem, the son of the local ruler, saw her and took a fancy to her, and, well, you know what he did. 

Some of the language is similar to the story in the book of Samuel, in which  King David’s son Amnon, rapes his half-sister Tamar.  But in that story, after the rape Amnon suddenly becomes disgusted with Tamar and sends her away.  Tamar at that point begs him not to reject her.  She knew that in the extreme patriarchy of her time, she would be blamed for what happened, and her only hope of any kind social acceptance was if Amnon would marry her. 

Dinah’s story is different.  After the initial deed, the text says:

Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the girl, (Shechem) spoke to the girl’s heart. (Genesis 34:1-3)

“Shechem spoke to her heart.” He appears to actually want to do right by her, that is, right within the obscenely patriarchal standards of their time, and Shechem is even willing to undergo circumcision, and to make all of his men undergo circumcision, just so he can marry Dinah.  But Dinah’s brothers won’t have it.  They decide that their sister has been defiled, and they turn to vigilante justice, killing Shechem and all of his men.

Never once do we see the brothers consulting Dinah. We have no idea if Shechem’s “speaking to her heart” was successful.  We don’t know if she felt her brothers were properly revenging her honor, or if she felt they were destroying the only chance she had for normalcy within the limits that the ancient world imposed on women.  Dinah’s feelings simply didn’t matter in any of this. 

And the thing is, that attitude was normal!  Rape was not a crime against the woman.  It was a crime against the honor of her family.  Remnants of that attitude in the United States persisted all the way until 1993, when finally the last state recognized marital rape as a crime.

Why did women put up with such attitudes for so long?  Remember Rachel who died in childbirth. When your entire adult life is laden with the deep physical demands of producing children, the balance of power is against you.  

Today, women with access to good health care have an entirely different level of control over fertility.  Our control is not as perfect as we like to think – read my friend Lara’s book if you are curious to find out more about that.  But it is certainly the case that the most physically demanding stages of reproduction – the stages that only females can burden – no longer need to occupy most of a person’s life.  And this has opened enormous possibilities.  For women, to increase their education and career achievements.  For men, to take a much greater role in nurturing children. For all of us, to expand our understanding of gender, removing even the need to cast people into two rigidly separate gender categories.

When power has been so deeply imbalanced for so long, shifting takes time. We still have a lot of work to do. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 American women report having been raped at some time in their lives.  1 in 5!!  According to Rainin, the rate is slightly higher among transgender people. Among men and boys the rate is much lower, but still shockingly high. 1 in 71 men report having been raped at some point in their lives. The impact of sexual assault on the victim is long lasting and severe. Victims often contemplate suicide, are more likely to abuse drugs, and can show physical effects in their bodies decades later.  Most concerning, between 2017 and 2018, rates of sexual violence almost doubled, but rates of reporting these crimes to the police went down.  

In the area of fertility control, it is still the case that some Catholic hospitals will choose to let a woman die rather than perform an abortion for her, and no Catholic hospital is allowed to offer contraceptives of any kind. But for women with Catholic hospitals holding a substantial share of the market, and with mergers increasing their influence, in low-income areas, often a Catholic hospital is the only option. And in large swaths of the United States, women’s health centers are so sparse, that a woman may need to lose a full day of work, or more, just to get to her appointment.

Even in the day-to-day negotiations of regular life, we have work to do. A man can take up space, assert dominance, and be admired as a leader. A woman who behaves in exactly the same way, will likely trigger resentment and be shut down. And, by the way, it’s not just men who do the shutting down. From what I’ve seen, women also shut down other women and don’t realize what they are doing.  When it happens to you, it’s kind of crazy making. You’re never really sure.  Would they have responded that way to my male colleague? Was I over aggressive there?

But I can say, looking back on my graduate school days at MIT in the 1990s, I was definitely shut-down by a male post-doc who felt threatened by me. At the time, I did not even think to look to gender as a factor in that dynamic. Implicit bias wasn’t in my vocabulary yet. Only now, looking back, it’s obvious. Being able to name the problem is essential progress, because until you can name it you can’t begin the work of correcting it.

And looking back further, I remember so clearly as a middle school student thinking to myself, “My teachers don’t expect me to be smart because I am a girl.  They are always surprised when I turn out to be at the top of the class.”  I promise you, my daughter does not feel that way.  She knows that her teachers have just as high expectations of her as they do of the boys. Progress!

About a year ago, I had this sudden nostalgic urge to watch Mash. It had been so popular when I was my kids’ age, and I wanted to show it to them. We watched about ten minutes, and I had to turn it off.  Obvious sexual harassment was being shown casually as normal behavior. I was shocked that we had once thought this was funny.  That’s a lot of progress for several decades.

When the prophet Jeremiah imagined he heard Rachel’s voice crying for her lost children, he then imagined he heard God responding.

Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears…For there is reward for your labor…There is hope for your future. (Jeremiah 31:16-17)

The promise of long term change is a foundational belief of Judaism, but it takes time. Think how far we’ve come, just in our lifetimes.  Just in the past two decades!  And thinking back three hundred years to a world that was as dangerous and unfair to women as it was 3000 years ago for Rachel and Dinah, the contrast is amazing. Three hundred years is a blink of an eye on the scale of human history. 

We have a ways yet to go until every human being is accepted for who they are, and empowered to become the most they can.  But we will get there.