The name of Torah portion known as Chayei Sarah, “the Life of Sarah,” is bitterly ironic. Sarah dies in the first verse, offstage, as it were, and the action quickly shifts to Abraham’s bargaining for her burial place, and then to the story of the next generation, Isaac and Rebecca.
Is this what Sarah deserves? Even in death, she is a mute object, much as the text depicts her throughout her life. In the entire Torah she speaks only eight lines, most of them ignominious. When Abram and Sarai (before their names are changed) go down to Egypt, Abram allows Sarai to become a part of the Pharaoh’s harem in order to try and save his own life (Genesis 12) -- and she says nothing. Sarai proposes that Abram have a child by her handmaid Hagar, and then jealously mistreats Hagar. When angels come to announce to Abraham and Sarah that they will at last have a child of their own, Sarah laughs at the notion (as Abraham had earlier) and then lies and says she didn’t. A second time, Sarah is given as a concubine to a foreign king, and again she says nothing. She utters words of praise when Isaac is born, but then demands that Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael, “for the son of that slave shall not share the inheritance with my son Isaac” (Genesis 21:10). And she is absent during the episode in which her husband almost sacrificed their son to God.
Such is the life of Sarah, as recounted by the text itself. Commentators, classical and modern, have tried to fill in the gaps. One popular tale is that Sarah died upon hearing that Isaac had been sacrificed, that she perished with a cry of anguish (see Genesis Rabbah). More contemporary voices, like Anita Diamant in The Red Tent, have pointed out that the Torah is a document written (or written down) by men for men. Of course the text spends more time on Abraham’s funeral arrangements than Sarah’s actual death; that’s what mattered to men of the time. To recover Sarah, we must re-imagine her.
I am certainly sympathetic to the politics of such a reading. And yet the remainder of the Chayei Sarah portion undermines it. Because here, in the character of Rebecca, the text presents us with a woman who is assertive, heroic, and talkative. In the first chapter of Rebecca’s story (Genesis 24), she utters more words than Sarah does in her entire recorded life. Encountering Abraham’s servant, sent to find a wife for Isaac, she offers food, water, and shelter. True, she is still not given control over her life; her male relatives arrange her marriage to Isaac. But already in Chayei Sarah she is presented as a different kind of woman than Sarah.
As readers of the Bible know, this pattern would only grow over the years. When Isaac is near death, for example, Rebecca engineers the giving of the blessing to Jacob rather than Esau (Genesis 27). She, not Isaac, is the agent who ensures that the line clearly favored by the text of the Torah is maintained and enlarged.
If Rebecca is a different kind of woman, Isaac is a different kind of man. When Rebecca is brought to him, he says nothing, bringing her into his mother’s tent and, the text says, being comforted by her. He was forty years old when he married – unusual in our age, shocking in Biblical times. He speaks very little; apart from the blessings he gives his sons, he speaks only a few words in the two parshiot (portions) that tell his story. (One legend holds that he was so traumatized by almost being sacrificed that he was rendered a near mute.)
In other words, in the gender binarism of the Hebrew Bible, Isaac is “feminized” and Rebecca “masculinized.” This, too, was embellished upon by later traditions; the Kabbalah understands Isaac as embodying one of the feminine qualities of God, in contrast to Abraham, who was masculine. The Zohar, the masterpiece of the Kabbalah, even says that Isaac knew what it was to be a woman.
These two couples – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca – teach us much not only about Biblical conceptions of gender, but our own as well. Isaac and Rebecca are, in modern parlance, “queer.” This doesn’t mean that they’re gay; it means that the way they perform their genders is non-normative. Supposedly, men are to take action, not be acted upon; women are to be passive objects. This is the pattern of Abraham and Sarah, as the text records it. But it is not the pattern of Isaac and Rebecca. These ancient Biblical texts seem to recognize something that many people today do not: that gender roles are constructed by society, and do not necessarily match the rainbow of gender identities which people take on in their lives.
Interestingly, these polarities recur in the next generation, that of Esau and Jacob. Esau is more like Abraham: a manly man, with a deep voice and hairy flesh, and a talent for hunting game. Jacob is more like Isaac: an “effeminate” man, with a soft voice and smooth flesh, and a talent for cooking and staying home. Only after Jacob’s quest-experience wrestling with “the man” can he embrace the masculine within himself, re-embrace Esau after years apart, and change his name to become the patriarch Israel (Genesis 35).
All of this begins in Chayei Sarah, with its namesake dying offstage and her successor matriarch entering the scene in a surprisingly gender-transgressive way. Fundamentalists may point to the Bible to justify all kinds of simplifications of the human experience. But when one reads the text closely, in fact the Bible defies all such attempts to flatten into categories the infinite complexity of human experience.
ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.