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Lekh Lekha 5779 / 20 October 2018

October 22, 2018

I had trouble reading Torah at morning minyan this week. I don’t think anyone could have noticed – it was a familiar portion and I had plenty of time to prepare. My problem had nothing to do with technical execution; it was something else entirely, something I haven’t experienced before.

It began Sunday evening after dinner, when I sat at the table to finish preparing the reading. Everything went fine until I reached the final three verses:

וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיֵּ֨רֶד אַבְרָ֤ם מִצְרַ֨יְמָה֙ לָג֣וּר שָׁ֔ם כִּֽי־כָבֵ֥ד הָֽרָעָ֖ב בָּאָֽרֶץ: וַיְהִ֕י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר הִקְרִ֖יב לָב֣וֹא מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אֶל־שָׂרַ֣י אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ הִנֵּה־נָ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֛י אִשָּׁ֥ה יְפַת־מַרְאֶ֖ה אָֽתְּ: וְהָיָ֗ה כִּֽי־יִרְא֤וּ אֹתָךְ֙ הַמִּצְרִ֔ים וְאָֽמְר֖וּ אִשְׁתּ֣וֹ זֹ֑את וְהָֽרְג֥וּ אֹתִ֖י וְאֹתָ֥ךְ יְחַיּֽוּ: אִמְרִי־נָ֖א אֲחֹ֣תִי אָ֑תְּ לְמַ֨עַן֙ יִֽיטַב־לִ֣י בַֽעֲבוּרֵ֔ךְ וְחָֽיְתָ֥ה נַפְשִׁ֖י בִּגְלָלֵֽךְ:

Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.”[1]

I managed to get a whole verse in before stopping short, but I knew what was coming before I got there. The whole concept of the story hit me in the gut – Sarai’s powerlessness, Abram’s apparent willingness to throw her under the bus to save his own hide, the almost nonchalant discussion of an anticipated sexual assault. Rebecca, hearing me stop in the middle, looked across the table at me and said exactly what I was thinking: the crazy thing is, when we learned this story in day school they taught it like it was totally fine. But now, through a lens of #MeToo, the premise of Abram passing his wife off as his sister – leaving her vulnerable to other, more powerful men – in order to save himself looks anything but fine.

We shouldn’t rush to judgment; from the story it seems, at least from Abram’s perspective, his back was against the wall and his life was at stake; Sarai’s fate was likely the same either way.[2] As long as Avram survives, he might be able to prevent or at least mitigate the harm to Sarai.[3] Indeed, modern scholarship shows that, in the Bronze Age, a brother had legally recognized status as his sister’s guardian, so this ruse might have actually given Abram some power to protect Sarai.

Still, it’s a deeply problematic story, and I’m inclined to side with Ramban, whose 13th-century commentary concludes that Abram, however well-intentioned, committed a grave sin.[4] But before we condemn Abram for apparent misogyny and abuse, consider the totality of what we know about him: he is a complicated man, blazing a new path in an often hostile world. His marriage to Sarai is troubled, but also strong, with clear signs of partnership and mutual respect. There’s plenty of things about Abram that we could critique – none of our Biblical heroes are perfect[5] – but we can’t deny that he always seems to try his best to do the right thing, even when things turn out differently in the end. What caught me off guard on Sunday, however, was not any of the moral questions that the commentaries tackle. What really got to me was his apparent lack of concern or consideration for Sarai’s place in all of this. You’re going to pass me off as your unwed sister, so you don’t get killed – and then what? Not only does Abram seem to overlook Sarai’s experience entirely, throughout the major commentaries only Ramban – who earlier described this whole affair as a grave sin – considers Sarai’s role in the story. I wasn’t entirely surprised to read that, in his opinion, she went along reluctantly at best.[6]

There was a certain tendency in 20th-century Bible interpretation to look at the Torah’s characters as primitives, people shackled to benighted attitudes and mistaken beliefs that we, in the modern age, had left behind in the dusty corners of time. Whatever you might think about that premise, it has become clear to me in this era of #MeToo that it’s not just our ancestors who failed to see how the women around them were experiencing life and society. In women’s stories – whether I read them in the newspaper, hear them in Senate testimony, or listen in private conversation – I hear a whole dimension of American experience that I never saw before. I know this will be more than obvious to half of the people in this room, but I’m going to say it anyway: our friends and neighbors who identify as women have been living in an altogether different world.

I was raised in a nice Jewish home; we went to shul every week, attended a Solomon Schechter day school, participated actively in USY and Camp Ramah. I grew up in a firmly egalitarian Jewish community with a mother who, like most of my friends’ mothers, had a graduate degree and worked outside the home. I learned, in no uncertain terms, that women should be treated equally with men in all areas of life. And still events of the past year have forced me to confront the many ways in which I actively participated in systems and cultures that, like Abram in this morning’s parashah, forced women into difficult and compromised positions without acknowledging or even recognizing their experience.

It would be easy to brush off the indiscretions of youth: the jokes I laughed at, probably retold, and remained silent even if I did feel uncomfortable; the way I spoke out in class, especially in the more spirited discussions, without paying attention to how the girls would fade back as the other boys and I took up the discussion time; the subtle but undeniable ways our social lives celebrated the boys’ sexual behavior while shaming girls for the very same things. There are so many things that could be described as “victimless crimes” but for the ways in which they shaped our social lives in ways that were undeniably harmful to the girls we hung out with. The example that always comes to mind for me – in no small part because it’s a story that I once told as an amusing anecdote and now cringe to even share with you – were Friday nights at Camp Ramah. In my last summer as a camper, just before 11th grade, I would sit with a friend, who is now also a Conservative rabbi, in the top row of the amphitheater. From that vantage point, we would look out at the other kids and offer a running commentary on the girls, how they looked, how they dressed. We’d call out to the ones we thought looked especially good – not gross catcalls, genuine compliments and Shabbat greetings. While I’m sure most of the girls took it with all the good will we intended, looking back I see how our compliments reinforced a culture that valued girls for their appearance first and foremost and their other positive qualities – kindness, intelligence, creativity – less, if at all. But I didn’t see it then, and I’m pretty sure that even the girls mostly didn’t understand the full implications, even as they undoubtedly felt the emotional and spiritual impact.

Thinking about all of this, I’m genuinely torn. Neither of us think or act like that anymore, and I truly believe we would have even behaved differently back then if we had understood how our words and behavior impacted the girls we knew and cared about. But we didn’t know, and honestly I don’t think we could have known then what we understand now. It was a different world in many ways – but a lot of things were rotten about that world, and I can’t just wave away my feelings of regret and shame at the way we acted.

It’s a difficult position: I can’t fault myself that I didn’t see the world as a 15-year-old in the 1990s the way I see it as a 38-year-old father in 2018.  But at the same time it feels deeply wrong to just shrug my shoulders at behaviors that are, quite frankly, inexcusable. As far as I know, none of my friends ever assaulted a girl at a house party; but every last one of us participated in a way of life that made all kinds of offenses against women not only possible but commonplace. I believe it’s true that every woman in America has her #MeToo story, in which case it must be equally true that every man bears some culpability – at the very least for the things we saw and failed to stop, and especially for all that we failed to see at all.

The difference between us and Abram isn’t nearly as great as we would like to think – but it could be. On Kol Nidre night at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, my colleague and friend Rabbi Jill Maderer taught about many of these same issues, and offered specific ways each and every one of us can build a society that respects all people and offers full dignity to those who identify as women. You should all take the time to read her words. I won’t repeat her whole list here, since you can read it for yourself; in many different ways, each of the actions she put forward ultimately comes back to noticing how the women around us experience a given situation, and stepping forward any time we see or hear something objectionable. For most of us, that’s a tall order; it means reorganizing the way we think and opening difficult, uncomfortable conversations. Many of us, men especially, could suffer consequences for our attempts to disrupt the status quo. Nevertheless, I am personally committed to doing what is necessary to shape a better world – not just for my wife or daughters, the women of this community, but for myself and my son and all the boys. We all deserve better.

[1] Gen. 12:10-13.

[2] Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, Gen. 12:13.

[3] Ha’amek Davar, Gen. 12:13.

[4] Ramban, Gen. 12:10

[5] Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary, Gen. 12:13.

[6] Ramban, Gen. 12:11-13.