With an open mind

Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.


Sermons and Thoughts

Smash the Patriarchy

23 October 2021
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Sermon Parashat Vayeira

You can watch a recording of this sermon on our YouTube channel.

i left my hair in the taxi ’cause the driver was a creep
chattin’ on my dead phone just so he can see
i was careful to show my face on the cctv
told a joke to the bouncer so that he’d remember me leave

so i guess that’s where we are
isn’t it amazing what i’m contemplating to get home?
you okay with where we are?
’cause i see nothing changin’, it’s beyond frustratin’
i just wanna walk home

These lyrics by 20-year old British pop singer and TikTok personality Josie Proto, written after the murder of Sarah Everard this summer, detail in blunt and unsparing terms, the various ways young women ensure they return safely from a night out or a late commute.

Sarah Everard’s murder shocked the public and brought violence against women into the headlines but as the murder of Sabina Ness highlighted: since Sarah Everard’s brutal murder, only one thing has changed – the death toll. In the 28 weeks that followed Everard’s murder 81 other UK women were killed in circumstances where the suspect is a man.

And just this week we read in the news that young women going clubbing, primarily university students, not only have to watch their drinks to avoid having them spiked but they must also now fear being injected with date rape drugs.

A couple of weeks ago in the Jewish News, Naomi Dickson, the Chief Executive of Jewish Women’s Aid, asked: Where’s the outrage from our community at violence against women? She is right to demand action from the Jewish community.

When I addressed the topic of violence against women in my sermon in April of this year, I said that “We have to stop making excuses for the fact that our religious texts have contributed to normalising misogyny, homo- and transphobia and toxic masculinity for centuries. And we must examine how we, our faith tradition, the Jewish community, our synagogue and as individuals have perpetuated the harm that our sacred texts have caused.”

And yet I notice how easy it is even for myself to gloss over the numerous toxic stories contained in our textual traditions. We have only made it as far as Genesis 21 and women have already been portrayed as the seductress leading to the banishment of all of humankind out of paradise, a wife sold into sex slavery to protect her husband in a foreign land, daughters offered up to the mob for sexual abuse to protect male guests, daughters portrayed as evil instigators of incest, and a handmaid forced to bear the child of her mistresses’ husband just to be banished into the wilderness to be left to die, as we have just read in the story of Hagar in our portion this week.

These stories are deeply painful and it is understandable that we don’t like to spoil our Shabbos joy and rather skip them in favour of more inspiring passages. And maybe, if we were living in a society where every human being grew up feeling equally safe just to walk home, we could say that there is no need to dwell on these gruesome stories and just occasionally look at them as a reminder of how far we have got.

But that is not the world we live in. As Josie Proto highlighted in her song, which I quoted at the start of this sermon, there has been shockingly little progress in the past decades when it comes to women’s safety. And so we must look at these texts again and again and we must scrutinize how, as a community, we have embraced rather than rejected these stories, failing to view them critically in a way that could lead to change.

Throughout the ages apologetic commentaries have attempted to minimize or even justify the violence against women that is depicted in our sacred literature by explaining the violence as part of God’s greater plan or trying to contextualise the violence in the historical reality often even suggesting that the women in our stories somehow got a better deal than women contemporaries or even blaming the women for the violence committed against them.

If we look at the story of Hagar and Ishmael’s banishment, which we just read, we find for instance a commentary by Rabbi Elchanan Samet, lecturer at the Michlelet Herzog- Lifschitz College in Gush Etzion, who quotes several Near Eastern documents to vindicate the behavior of Abraham and Sarah saying that they were acting within the moral and legal conventions of their day (see for example a Mesopotamian Marriage Contract, c. 19th century BCE). While the late Prof Nehama Leibowitz strenuously objects to this line of interpretation, insisting instead that “The Torah is not interested in noting Abraham’s conformity to contemporary custom”, she too minimizes the violence of the story by maintaining that the Torah offers a sympathetic treatment of Hagar, including the poignant comment of the angel that God responded to Hagar’s cry and blessed her so that her descendants would be free and a great nation. Prof Leibowitz simply glosses over the fact that the Torah does not criticise Sarah or Abraham, leaving us to believe that they acted legally in their context.

Most disappointingly, none of these commentaries allow us to learn positive lessons for what we might be able to do to create a society that would prevent these acts of violence. They fail to contribute to Tikkun Olam. This failure is worse than just an act of omission, it is more than disappointing, for it has deadly consequences – for 81 women in just 28 weeks in Britain alone.

All the biblical stories of violence against women have one clear commonality, which remains until this day at the heart of violence against women – it is power of men over women. As the UN’s Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (Proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 48/104 of 20 December 1993) notes: “violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.” To put it more simply – the problem is the patriarchy!

Better policing, sufficient street lighting and bag searches at the entrance to night clubs are plasters that we can put on the gaping wound of endemic violence against women. But the wound is far too deep for a plaster to do the trick. We need sutures – we need to fight for societal and legal changes that will eliminate gender hierarchies and subordination. We need to smash the patriarchy.

And I believe Liberal Judaism is in the perfect position to lead on this issue. We are a movement committed to equality and elimination of hierarchy. As the success of the current Liberal Judaism educations series “Forgotten Lives” shows, Liberal Jews are interested in learning about the contribution that Jewish women have made throughout the ages. We are committed to righting historic wrongs, to ensure that women are not forgotten, thought of as lesser human beings. As a movement we can tackle the causes of misogyny head on and educate our young people to create a better, more equal, safer future for women. We can ensure that in our Jewish communities, perpetrators of abuse are not tolerated, women can reach the support they need and are confident to reach out for it. We must not stand idly by.

In 1938, Rabbi Regina Jonas wrote:

I hope a time will come for all of us in which there will be no more questions on the subjects of “woman”: for as long as there are questions, something is wrong. … God has placed abilities and callings in our hearts, without regard to gender. Thus each of us has the duty, whether man or woman, to realize those gifts God has given. If you look at things this way, one takes woman and man for what they are: human beings.

God has placed upon us the responsibility for creating a just society and granted us the gifts to achieve this. As human beings, we have brought about progress in so many areas. Building a society in which every human being can feel safe irrespective of their gender, is not beyond our reach. And even if it might seem impossible at times, we must lead the way. As it says in Pirkei Avot: you do not have to complete the task but neither are you free to desist from it.

Ken yehi ratzon – for this is most certainly God’s will.