The following discussion is from the midrash Bereshit Rabba:
“And she called the name of the Lord that spoke to her (Gen. 16:13). Rabbi Judah son of Simon and Rabbi Yohanan in the name of Rabbi Eleazar son of Simeon said: ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, never condescended to converse with a woman save with that righteous woman [Sarah], and that too was through a particular cause.’
Rabbi Abba said in Rabbi Birya’s name: ‘And what a roundabout way He took in order to speak with her, as it is written, “And he said, No, but you did laugh,” (Gen. 18:15). But it is written, “And she [Hagar] called the name of the Lord that spoke unto her”?’
Rabbi Joshua son of Nehemiah answered: ‘That was through an angel. But it is written: “And the Lord said unto her” [Rebecca] (Gen. 25:23)?!’
Rabbi Levi said in the name of R. Hanina bar R. Hanina: ‘That was through an angel.’
R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Jose ben Zimra: ‘That was through the medium of Shem.'”
Did the Imahot (matriarchs) have a relationship with God?
This question has nagged at me of late, brought to the surface by the welcome feminist language of the new Mahzor Lev Shalom. Faced by the names of the Imahot staring at me from the page, I found myself confronting anew a question I have not revisited in some time: was Abraham’s God Sarah’s God too?
The rabbis were clearly torn. On the one hand, they sought to uphold the idea of matriarchal piety; moreover, there was irrefutable textual evidence that God did in fact speak to Sarah and Rebecca at least. The problem at the core of this midrash, though, is that God also spoke with Hagar. Was Hagar’s relationship with God equal to Sarah’s? And both of those to Abraham’s?
The midrash works hard to dispel such an equation. Rabbi after rabbi is cited crediting a tradition that each of these conversations (“condescensions”) took place through an intermediary. God might have spoken to the patriarchs, but the rabbis were not willing to grant such status to the matriarchs.
As the midrashic collation helps us see, God did speak to Sarah and Rebecca; but in fact, it is only Rebecca who seeks God out (Gen. 25:22). None of the other women go to God in the peshat, and Sarah is spoken to (as the midrash senses) almost accidentally as she annoys God with her laughter and cover-up.
When I daven, I do not mention the Imahot alongside their husbands. Far from a traditionalist act, however, this is one of my most sincerely feminist ones. Every time I don’t say their names, I feel like my women ancestors and I are winking at one another, laughing as Sarah did that the men who wrote history think they knew what our relationship with God was all about. By leaving their names out of the prayer formula, I experience directly the magnitude of the decision our community has made in our commitment to feminism and gender equality. To my mind, I respect their own spiritual stories more by my silence than by making assumptions about them.
We no longer need to rewrite biblical theology or insert women into our history. Our community has done better than that: we have inserted women into our present, and include our relationships with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the spiritual corpus we pass on in the future.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.
Abigail Treu is Director of the Center for Jewish Living and The David H. Sonabend Center for Israel at JTS