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Women’s Rights Part I and II (Parshiyot Toldot and Vayeitzei) 11/17 & 11/24

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Women’s Rights Part I and II (Parshiyot Toldot and Vayeitzei 5778)
Part I
Two weeks ago, the accusations against Alabama Senatorial candidate Roy Moore reached new lows with many women claiming that when they were between 14 and 18 years old, the then Assistant State Prosecutor initiated sexual encounters with them.

An Alabama state official downplayed the report, saying there was an age gap too between the biblical Joseph and Mary. “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

Perhaps he forgot that Mary was considered a virgin!

Francine Keifer, in the Christian Science Monitor, identified something very interesting. She wrote, “few stories illustrate the zeitgeist, the defining spirit or mood of our particular period of American politics and culture more clearly right now than that of the issues surrounding Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. For one thing, it accentuates the starkly different reactions to the accusations – denied by Moore, but given credence by party leaders. For Moore supporters, the accusations fall into the Trump-era vortex of ‘fake news,’ with many discounting them as the product of a liberal media.
At the same time, the Moore accusations are bringing to light the #MeToo story – the surging wave of women making public their accounts of alleged sexual abuse.” It’s a sign that a broad shift in attitudes is occurring.
Since the accusations against Harvey Weinstein on October 5, more than 25 high profile actors, directors, congressmen, ex-presidents, current presidents, producers and CEOs have been accused of multiple cases of sexual harassment.
I believe we’ve come to a tipping point for this issue.
Accusations, which started as a slow leak in 1991 when Anita Hill accused her boss, Clarence Thomas (at the United States Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), of sexual harassment, have now become a mighty river.
Malcolm Gladwell writes, “The Tipping Point is that magic moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire.” It seems we’ve reached that point that when women are not going to accept powerful men’s age-old misogynistic behavior.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the domination of women easily goes back to the Biblical times, with the first woman, Eve, being told, “And to your husband will be your desire, and he will rule over you.”
Even the sacred covenant of marriage in the Torah is simply portrayed as “taking”, a man takes a wife. Courtship and falling in love don’t appear in Jewish literature until “Fiddler on the Roof.” In last week’s parsha the taking of women is so predominant that Isaac has to lie about his wife and say that Rivka is his sister instead in order to protect himself:
ז  וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ אַנְשֵׁי הַמָּקוֹם, לְאִשְׁתּוֹ,וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲחֹתִי הִוא:  כִּי יָרֵא, לֵאמֹר אִשְׁתִּי, פֶּן-יַהַרְגֻנִי אַנְשֵׁי הַמָּקוֹם עַל-רִבְקָה, כִּי-טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה הִוא.
7 And the men of the place asked him of his wife; and he said: ‘She is my sister’; for he feared to say: ‘My wife’; ‘lest the men of the place should kill me for Rebekah, because she is beautiful.”
ח  וַיְהִי, כִּי אָרְכוּ-לוֹ שָׁם הַיָּמִים,וַיַּשְׁקֵף אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ פְּלִשְׁתִּים, בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן; וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה יִצְחָק מְצַחֵק,אֵת, רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ.
8 And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines peer into their window, and saw, and behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah, his wife!
ט  וַיִּקְרָא אֲבִימֶלֶךְ לְיִצְחָק, וַיֹּאמֶר אַךְ הִנֵּה אִשְׁתְּךָ הִוא, וְאֵיךְ אָמַרְתָּ,אֲחֹתִי הִוא; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, יִצְחָק, כִּי אָמַרְתִּי, פֶּן-אָמוּת עָלֶיהָ.
9 And Abimelech called Isaac, and said: ‘Behold, surely she is your wife; how could you say, ‘She is my sister?’ And Isaac replied, ‘Because I said: Lest I die because of her.’
The powerful have never stopped taking women that they desire. But now at least in Congress, it will become harder. Just last week, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a resolution making sexual harassment training mandatory. The House today held a hearing to review its own policies, at which several female lawmakers who had previously worked as staffers testified about their own experiences of abuse on Capitol Hill.
After the hearing, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin issued a statement saying, “Going forward, the House will adopt a policy of mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all Members and staff. Our goal is not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution.”
The Women’s Rights Movement marks July 13, 1848 as its beginning. On that sweltering summer day in upstate New York, a young housewife and mother, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was invited to tea with four women friends. When the course of their conversation turned to the situation of women, Stanton poured out her discontent with the limitations placed on her own situation under America’s new democracy. Hadn’t the American Revolution had been fought just 70 years earlier to win the patriots freedom from tyranny? But women had not gained freedom even though they’d taken equally tremendous risks through those dangerous years. Surely the new republic would benefit from having its women play more active roles throughout society.
It’s now 169 years later, and maybe by the time our bat mitzvah students enter the workplace, it won’t be considered a “man’s world” anymore, but just the business world. Hopefully these endemic issues will be uprooted, and women will be respected and treated as equals.
Part II
I was once talking with a congregant of mine whose Bar Mitzvah took place in 1962 in Miami during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  What he remembers from his Bar Mitzvah was him wondering if there’d be a reception after the service or nuclear annihilation!
Likewise, whether we’re celebrating a Bat/Bar Mitzvah now, we should realize that we’re living in an epic time, and this Thanksgiving Shabbat is one we should remember for the rest of our lives. Just this past week many more important and prominent people were accused of sexual harassment in the workplace. Highly respected journalist and news personality Charlie Rose lost two prestigious jobs because of accusations of impropriety.
Actress Natalie Portman (Darth Vader’s Wife) said this week, “When I heard everything coming out, I was like, wow, I’m so lucky that I haven’t had this. And then, on reflection, I was like, okay, definitely never been assaulted, definitely not, but I’ve had discrimination or harassment on almost everything I’ve ever worked on in some way.” In fact, the more she reexamined her experiences, other incidents come into sharp relief. “I went from thinking I don’t have a story to thinking, Oh wait, I have 100 stories. And I think a lot of people are having these reckonings with themselves, of things that we just took for granted as like, this is part of the process.”
Hopefully, by the time our daughters enter the workforce, it won’t be part of the process anymore.
It seems that women’s progress has grown even more this year. I read a recent article in Time Magazine titled “Firsts: Women who are changing the world.” It’s fascinating the inroads that women have made in the past two decades, from politics to the racetrack, to space exploration to owning the internet, to leading major corporations. When my mother was growing up, she had three choices other than being a housewife: a nurse, a teacher or a secretary.
In this week’s Parsha, Jacob marries four women. The goal of all of them is solely to bear children. Three of the wives are immediately successful, but Rachel is barren: (Genesis Chapter 30:1) “And Rachel saw that she had not borne any children to Jacob, and Rachel envied her sister, and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, for otherwise I am dead!”
For Rachel, if she wasn’t giving birth to children, she considered her life worthless. Thankfully, things have changed.
Now for women, the sky’s the limit. (Or for sport fans, “The ceiling is the roof!”) Why is all this change occurring now? Perhaps, it’s a reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency, or perhaps it’s just a snowballing of events that started 169 years ago at the first Women’s Rights Movement gathering in Upstate New York. Either way, it’s something exciting that’s occurring right now and something we should notice and value.
When I was growing up in the late seventies, early eighties, I think it was still expected that the men would get the better jobs, that they would do the heavy lifting when it came to supporting the family. But it’s people like working mothers in our congregation who broke this model. They aspired to be the equals of, if not more than, their male peers, and things began to change.
What we’re now seeing in the news is a result of their work. They’ve paved the way for women to stand up for themselves in the workforce.
We bless our daughters, “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” They were righteous women, partners with their husbands in their lofty goals. For years though, they were left out of the prayers, with God only being called upon in their husbands’ names (as we see on page 35a.) But a few decades ago, just when these women entered the workforce, Conservative Jewry recognized the need to call upon God through the matriarchs as well. There was a paradigm shift in understanding the role of women in spirituality and leadership. As evidenced in page 35b, we now call upon God through both the names of the patriarchs and the matriarchs, demonstrating our belief that women are indeed equal to men.
Because many of our working women exemplified this ideal, repugnant behaviors that were once accepted as “part of the process” may not be any more.
A tipping point has occurred; certain behaviors and improprieties will no longer be accepted. Progress is occurring in secular and religious circles and it’s up to us to ensure that progress continues.

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