Thursday, August 15, 2013

Abraham's betrayal of Sarah or the most feminist post I've written yet

At the beginning of his adventures Abraham travels to Egypt to escape a famine. Along the way a thought occurs to him. He turns to Sarah, his wife, and says: "Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” 

What is Abraham's plan? What is he saying but not saying? I see two possible interpretations:

CHOICE ATell the Egyptians you're my sister, and (lucky!) they won't bother us at all. We'll stay together, but the Egyptians will be so impressed with the fact that you're my sister, that they will treat me well and spare my life, and no harm will come to you.

Tell the Egyptians you're my sister. Yes, they will still take you to the harem but at least I'll get some money as a result. Look, they are going to take you away no matter what we do, but if they think we're married, I'll get killed. At least let me make a buck from this unfortunate situation.

Traditionally, I don't think either of these two readings is assigned to the verse. In the second interpretation, Abraham is exhibiting the morality of a pimp. In the first, he's clueless. I don't know of any Rabbinic commentary that understands Abraham's behavior in either way.

When we learned this verse in third grade, I think the teacher interpreted it something like this:

Tell the Egyptians you're my sister. They're probably still take you and make you the Pharoh's wife, but that's ok; anyway, God will eventually come to the rescue. Meanwhile, thanks to you, I'll get rich. After God steps in and solves the problem, we'll enjoy the bounty together. 

That works for third graders, but only because third graders don't understand sex and violence. When you're eight years old, becoming a king's wife doesn't sound so bad. Sarah will probably get a nice vacation in the palace where, at worst, she might run into some trouble with the kashrus or have a hard time finding a private place to daven. For a third grader, I suppose that's a perfectly appropriate reading, but as you get older, and the blind spots shrink, it becomes untenable. Sarah isn't being taken away to enjoy the king's indoor swimming pool. She's not going for her pleasure at all. The king is going to rape her, and then he's going to keep her around, like a bird in a cage, until he feels like raping her again. This is the plan Abraham's words are setting in motion.

Just as a third grader has blind spots, so do adults. All of us read from a certain perspective and in light of the other things we know. I think most Orthodox Jews encounter this story from Abraham's perspective. The classical commentators speak of Abraham's tests and inner dialogues are invented for him, but to the best of my knowledge no energy is exerted toward imagining Sarah's experience. Moreover, while they show no reluctance to say that Abraham sinned against God, they fail to see that he also sinned against his wife. The crime against Sarah is neither discussed nor identified.

Nowadays, our OJ Rabbis likewise see only part of the story. They use the story to drive home points about modesty, without seeming to understand just how immodest Abraham's proposal is. Instead of using the story to remind wives to avoid tempting foreign men, why don't they use the story to remind us of our obligations to our wives? An appropriate modern moral might be: Don't focus on your career (the accumulation of riches) at the expense of your wife. Their reason for choosing the former over the latter isn't that the Torah tells us one thing and not the other, but that the Torah tells us nothing at all, leaving us to find or create interpretations that do the Torah's speaking for it.

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