Parashat Vayera. Women and our Biblical Heritage


Parashat Vayera details Hagar and Ishmael being cast out at Sarah’s behest.

Rabbi Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox, Lecturer in Family and Community Studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, discusses how we read this story today within our own cultural context. In today’s world, the role of women and the role of the patriarchy have changed. Not only that, but the minds of men and women have evolved along with their changes in status.

Full transcription below:

As we talk about Parashat Vayera, I want to start with something far afield, from an area which is totally unrelated: the tragedies that happened in 2019 with the Boeing 737 Max.

The philosopher Martin Peterson, points out that in a sense the plane has evolved, or had evolved, from something that it was back in the 1960s and ’70s into something that had just turned into in the year 2018, 2019. Essentially what he says is it evolved from one type of plane to another with technological and other types of advances. What he says is it’s a , beriah chadasha בראיה חדשה it’s a whole new being, and that the pilots who were flying it did not know actually how to fly it because they were not informed. The people at Boeing on the other hand, saw these as just minor changes.

It’s not that I’m an aviation expert, but I think what’s important is to look at how things change over time, culturally and evolutionarily. I want to look at Hagar, perhaps one of the most tragic figures in all of Sefer Bereishit, in the book of Genesis. Hagar, the midrash tells us, leaves Egypt- Pharaoh’s home- and actually goes to the next wealthiest man perhaps in most of the middle east. She comes and joins Avraham and Sarah. She bears a child who is supposed to belong to Sarah and Avraham even though she was essentially the mother. Then, in a tragic turn of events, she gets thrown out into the desert with her son and, as many parents would do, she sees her son lying there in the bush and she cries. That’s a tragedy that no parent should undergo.

However, what I want to look at is how women have changed over the past three to 4,000 years and even only in the past one to 200 years. Yeshayahu Leibovitz, in many of his articles on the status of woman and Rabbi Art Green say it explicitly that the woman herself is a beriah chadasha, is a new person, is a new being. It’s not the same woman who couldn’t be a judge in the past, but rather, only in the past a 100-150 years can women actually own property, can sign on a mortgage, can actually be on their own.

We see that culturally the ways things changed, not only in the minds of women, but also in the mind of the patriarchy-the mind of the men- that the woman has evolved from a different status than she was. We hoped that no one would have to go through the tragedy that Hagar went through, but we can see how far that women today in 2019 (and probably from the middle of the 20th century) have come and have become, what Jewish law would call, a beriah chadasha, a new being.

Therefore, we say that it’s time for Halacha and all our systems to come into line. Shavua Tov.