As this issue of JUF News hits the streets, the Jewish people are in the midst of the annual family reunion with Abraham and Sarah. Let's find out what Sarah has to teach us. There is a not fully appreciated but ultimately important role that Sarah plays in the history of ideas about women, and not just in Judaism, but in Western civilization. The Torah begins with a big problem for men but mostly women. Adam and Eve commit the same sin. They eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. They sin with hubris. That is to say, they believe they know what God knows. They're both punished. We know about Adam's problem. No free lunch. Having sinned he has to work. Eve is told:
And to the woman He (God) said, "I will make most severe Your pain in childbearing; in pain shall you rear children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you." (Genesis 3:16)
"And he shall rule over you"?!?! What is going on here? And then the Torah gets quite specific about why it is that Adam will rule over Eve, man over woman.
To Adam He said, "Because you listened to the voice of your wife…" (Genesis 3:17)
Originally in the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve were equal. They were equivocal, each possessed of equal voice and status. Eve's voice brought the sin. Eve is punished. Her voice is taken away from her and woman.
Many people have looked at this passage since the rise of the feminist movement, and seen in it the foundation of the Western world's discrimination against women; the Western world's refusal, until recently, to grant women equal prerogatives. This is wrong. The text of the Torah will not bear such a reading. The punishment given to Eve is redeemed, undone, and nullified by Sarah.
There are only two times in TaNaKh, the Hebrew Bible, when God has a conversation with a husband and wife. The first conversation is in B'reisheet 3, when God speaks with Adam and Eve after they have eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The second conversation is in B'reisheet 18, when God speaks with Abraham and Sarah. This is enough to connect the two stories, but there is much more that links them. These are the only two narratives in the Torah in which the weather describes the time of day. It is the "breezy," or morning, time of day in the Garden.
It is at the "heat of the day" that God visits Abraham and Sarah. In both narratives God discusses the birth of children. In both narratives a tree is prominently figured. Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Abraham welcomes his guests underneath a tree. In both narratives God talks first to the husband and then to the wife. And finally, an uncommon Biblical word is found in both narratives, "Eden." In Hebrew this word means irrigated, flowing with water. Eden is a garden irrigated by four rivers. When Sarah in disbelief tells God that she cannot have children because she is old and withered she says to him, "I am hardly Eden-like." The meeting of God, Abraham, and Sarah restores the equivocality of woman, the status of woman. There are too many events to enumerate in B'reisheet that undo the punishments given to Adam and Eve.
Suffice it to say that with the very same words that God punished Eve, God restored woman through Sarah. Adam is punished because he "listened to the voice of his wife." In those very same Hebrew words, when it comes time to choose Isaac as the next Patriarch, God says to Abraham, "listen to the voice of your wife." These words are critical because they are repeated when it is Rebecca who, like her mother-in-law Sarah, designates the next Patriarch (Jacob) with the very same words. Rebecca has the prophetic voice. Therefore she is able to say to Jacob, "Listen to my voice."
In the Garden Adam and Eve are equivocal. They both sin. They are both punished. The equivocality of woman is erased, only to be restored a few chapters later in another conversation that God has with a husband and wife, this time Abraham and Sarah. As God, in effect, says to Abraham, "Forget what I said to Adam. You shall listen to the voice of your wife."
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.