Pluralistic Perspectives Listening to Women’s Voices

By Sharon Weiss-Greenberg

Parshat Vayera, Genesis 18:1-22:24

“Who are you wearing?”

“Have you been dieting?”

“Can you please have your fingers walk the red carpet with the mani cam?”

Questions of this ilk have been ignored or answered with a resounding “no” on the red carpet in recent months. Many female actors are simply tired of being asked about their appearance rather than their talent, intelligence, or the role or performance for which they have being nominated.  Fed up, some of the Hollywood elite have made it official with the #askhermore campaign.

Feminism’s current impact on Hollywood isn’t limited to shifting the focus away from women’s appearance, but includes taking their voices seriously and compensating them on a par with their male counterparts. Jennifer Lawrence, a feminist role model on and off screen, recently conveyed, “All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive.” When Sony’s emails were hacked and revealed, she (along with the general public) were brought face to face with the gender disparity in Hollywood salaries; Lawrence was being paid substantially less than her male colleagues, despite her A-list status after starring in The Hunger Games.  She decided to take ownership of the issue of unequal pay, publicizing a Hollywood concern that–on a different scale–affects women in all professions and jobs across the globe.

Others in Hollywood are taking their feminism public. Patricia Arquette used her Oscar acceptance speech as a platform to advocate for change when she declared, “”It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all,” as her colleagues rose to their feet. Nicki Minaj, the pre-eminent female hip hop recording artist, refused to answer “dumb” questions from the New York Times Magazine about her appearance.  And the “Bechdel Test” has gained prominence in discussions of pop culture, a standard first wryly proposed in 1985 by cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel (who attributes it to her friend Liz Wallace and the writings of Virginia Woolf): A movie passes the test if it has at least two female characters, who talk to each other, about something besides a man.

This is a proud moment for public sisterhood. But women are only half the population.  In 2014, Emma Watson called on the other half of the world to take a stand for equality.  She launched the famous UN  #heforshe campaign, arguing that it is time for male solidarity with women. Watson channeled the words of Hillel when she invited men, “to step forward, to be seen to speak up, to be the ‘he’ for ‘she.’ And to ask yourself if not me, who? If not now, when?” The list of male celebrities supporting the campaign continues to grow. Just two weeks ago. Bradley Cooper, one of the male actors whose higher pay was revealed during the Sony hack, shared that he will be negotiating salaries in partnership with his female co-stars.

So what does taking women seriously have to do with this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayera?

In Genesis 21:12, we read: “And God said to Abraham, Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad, and because of your bondwoman; in all that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice”—shema bekolah—“for through Isaac shall your seed be called.” God commands Abraham to listen to his wife. The medieval and modern commentaries on this passage do not attempt to minimize the importance of God’s instruction; they argue that Sarah’s connection to God and intuition about what should happen was in fact superior to that of Abraham’s.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a prominent 19th-century German thinker, says, “Abraham was told to listen to the kol, the voice of Sarah, rather than [merely] devar Sarah, the words of Sarah. True obedience is to the person, regardless of whether or not the listener understands the reason for the command or agrees with it. Abraham was told to rely on Sarah’s judgment because, as women generally do, she had a deeper insight into character than he did.” Former Chief Rabbi of the UK, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, explains that the use of the word shema, “listen”, in the context of this verse conveys the need for Abraham to “obey.”

The instruction to “listen to her voice”, and the strong language of obedience, does not yet seem to have been properly translated into a wider respect for women’s insights and authority within traditional Jewish life. At JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, we have named our publication that features words by Orthodox female scholars of Torah related to Jewish holidays, “Shema Bekolah”, in order to revive and expand that ancient command.

Women’s Torah scholarship has been on the rise in recent decades, and learning institutions are giving women unprecedented access to higher learning with the intention of their becoming experts in Jewish law. We have never had more serious women’s scholarship in Jewish history.  But instead of Hollywood’s #askhermore, let’s ask our male counterparts to #askheranything.  Why are male rabbis publicly debating the merits of women studying talmud, whether or not girls’ and womens’ images in the Modern Orthodox community should be absent, or the merits of a woman nursing in shul (synagogue)?

We are living in a great period in Jewish history, with women’s Torah study, learning, and knowledge at an all-time high—and it is only growing.  Women’s voices matter, and men’s voices matter. We are all invested in the Jewish people, and we should all be asked and heard in shaping its future.

Rabbinic responsa are traditionally composed of two elements, she’elot and teshuvot, questions and answers. Perhaps we have been focusing too much on the answers, and not enough on the questions—not only what we should be asking, but whom we should be asking. Who should be responding to the important questions of our time? Shema bekolah. Hear women’s voices. Value women’s voices. Take seriously the authority of women’s voices.

Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg is the Executive Director of Jewish Feminist Orthodox Alliance.

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