Tortured Readings on the Tenure Track


Tortured women in the Bible, tortured readings of the Bible text, my my.

I was asked a question about Hagar a few weeks ago, and since Hagar is first mentioned in this week’s parsha — Lech Lecha — this is an appropriate time to post the question and how I responded. Question and answer follow:

Question: I am currently a student studying at the University level “Women in Religion”. Being of Jewish background I found myself face to face being told a lot about a religion I know very little about. We are studying “texts of terror” which outlines women who were mistreated in the Torah.

4 females we came across were Hagar, Tamar, Levite’s Concubine, and Jepthah’s daughter. I would like to know– if Judaism is one of the most “accepting” and “pro female/equality” religion why there are stories about women being brutally raped, or thrown to be ‘known’ as is said in the Torah as sacrifices by fathers, and spouses.

Answer: You could ask the same question about any textbook of, say, abnormal psychology or criminal law. Why do such textbooks contain explicit case studies of behavior that is abnormal or criminal? The question answers itself.

The Torah contains stories of good people and bad people, selfless and righteous behavior as well as reprehensible behavior. To get to the bottom line — what does the Torah mean by telling us these stories? — you have to read the stories in context. To understand how Jews have always understood their most holy texts, you also have to read classic Jewish commentaries. The most famous such commentator was the great medieval scholar, Rashi, whose writings have been cherished by Jews for centuries. He, in turn, usually bases his comments on Talmudic discussions that were written down about 1500 years ago, and that in turn go back to 3000-year-old oral traditions explaining and elaborating on the written Torah texts.

It would take many pages to discuss each of the women you mention, and I can’t compete with your professor in the space of a short letter, but I want to mention at least a few points. Perhaps you can find a knowledgeable person in your area with whom you can discuss each of these issues in further depth, as it comes up during the semester.

Hagar initially was treated far better than she had any right to expect. Think about it. She was a maid. Her mistress, Sarah, was a beautiful, wealthy, well-known and prominent woman. Sarah herself chose a second wife for her own husband in an act of breathtaking selflessness–because she wanted her husband to be happy, to have children, and she saw that she herself could not have children.

How many women could do what Sarah did, bring another woman into her home that way, give up her own intimacy with her beloved husband of so many years? And of all the women she could have chosen, she chose the one she considered most suitable to be a mate for Avraham and the mother of his children — Hagar.

This incredible gift she gave Hagar, raising her from servant to co-wife and paying her the ultimate compliment thereby, was repaid — how? The Torah says that when Hagar became pregnant, she belittled Sarah and treated her with contempt. (Rashi says that Hagar assumed that Sarah must not be as righteous as she seemed, or G-d would have given her a child, just as He gave a baby to the “righteous” Hagar. What do you think of a person who assumes that if anything bad happens to someone, that person somehow *must* deserve it?!)

So Sarah responded with absolutely justified anger, and Hagar ended up running away. Who mistreated whom here?

Anyway, an angel told Hagar to return to her home — suitably chastened this time, and more respectful and appreciative towards Sarah — and we hear nothing further about “mistreatment” for fifteen years. Then the Torah says that Sarah saw how Yishmael (Hagar’s son) was “playing” with Sarah’s little boy, Yitschak — and Sarah objected. Rashi says Yishmael, a teenager, was playing William Tell games with his toddler brother, shooting arrows at him “playfully.”

Sarah well understood that her son’s life was in danger. Avraham, however, loved his older son — understandably — and didn’t want to hear what Sarah said. Finally, G-d himself told Avraham in a prophetic message, “Listen to Sarah.” Sarah was wiser than her husband, say the Sages of the Talmud. So, reluctantly, Avraham sent Hagar and Yishmael away — at G-d’s command. However, Avraham asked G-d to bless and protect them, and G-d did so.

Later, after Sarah’s death, the Torah says that Avraham married a woman named Keturah. Rashi (based on the Talmud) says that this woman was in fact Hagar, that she had repented for whatever sins she had earlier committed, and that she was a tzadekes — a righteous woman, which is why Avraham considered it appropriate to remarry her. Her new name reflected her new, higher spiritual level.

I would bet my bottom dollar that if your professor is any kind of a feminist or political creature, she is not going to discuss the story of Hagar the same way that classic Jewish sources do.

Beli neder (without a vow) I will write about the other three cases you mentioned, when I have more time. If you don’t hear from me please write again and nudge me.

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Sholom Simon
9 years 10 months ago


You (and others who are participating in this thread) would do well to read the textual analysis that R Gil notes above (with URL’s).

R Samet notes that the “affliction” that Hagar suffered may well have been her own anguish at being “second fiddle” to Sarah. Furthermore, recall that the angel directs Hagar back to Sarah — something that, certainly, would have been ordered had Sarah been physically afflicting Hagar.

9 years 10 months ago

יא וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה, הִנָּךְ הָרָה וְיֹלַדְתְּ בֵּן, וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ יִשְׁמָעֵאל, כִּי-שָׁמַע יְהוָה אֶל-עָנְיֵךְ. 11
And the angel of the LORD said unto her: ‘Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son; and thou shalt call his name Ishmael, because the LORD hath heard thy affliction.

Agreeing with Shira- “thou shalt call his name Ishmael, because the LORD hath heard thy affliction.”

Why, according to the pasuk, was Hagar given Ishmael as a child? She lost the baby she was carrying when she ran away, but was rewarded with this son. The reason is very simple- because God heard her afflictions- the afflictions that Sarah afflicted her with.

Sarah’s anger demonstrates a very powerful lesson, for it is because of this destructive anger that Ishmael came into the world. To claim her anger was fully justified is to ignore the meaning inherent in this verse. This is not my own original thought; I think it’s in the Lubavitch chumash, but I’m not sure. I’ll try to check up on it.

However, I have heard the interpretation you mention before. As always, there’s more than one way to look at it.

9 years 10 months ago

And one other thing: the pasuk specifically says that Sarah gave Hagar to Avraham as a WIFE —not as a concubine. The difference in status is enormous, the selflessness on Sarah’s part even more notable. And the pasuk makes it clear that this was all Sarah’s initiative, not Avraham’s.

Huh? Elswhere Sarah calls Hagar “the maid” and she calls Ishmael “the son of the maid” So it’s not at all clear that Hagar had eaqual status – even the angel of God refers to Sarah as Hagar’s mistress… talk about tortured readings…

9 years 10 months ago

You might look at the discussion by the late Nehama Leibowitz (Studies in Genesis)in “Sarah’s treatment of Hagar”. After close textual analysis she suggests that in initially proposing Hagar become a full co-wife, she (Sarah) overestimated her own ability to suppress normal feelings of jealousy. Nehama Leibowitz writes, “Had Sarah not wished to suppress her instincts and overcome every vestige of jealousy for her rival, had she not dared to scale these unusual heights of selflessness, she would not have fallen victim to the sin of “Sarah dealty harshly with her [Hagar]”- and there may not have been born that individual whose descendants have proved a source of trouble to ISrael to this very day. Who knows?”