Friday, November 3, 2017

Masculinity and Faith. Sara Denounced to Abraham for laughing in Vayera

Toxic masculinity is on our radar, manifesting in sexual harassment, rape, aggression and chauvinism. I wonder about the nature of non-toxic masculinity. What is it exactly? Is it realistic to have faith that men will express their masculinity in healthy ways? I don’t know how to answer my first question. The answer to my second question is to suggest that the question itself is flawed, because realism is not very useful in deciding whether to have faith in men. Faith in men requires a positive choice to believe we can get it right, despite some of the evidence.

The Torah’s teachings about the role of men often seem at odds with modern perspectives about gender roles. Perhaps the most controversial concept is the idea of a man as the “head of the household”. God declared to Eve representing all women, that “he will rule you” (1). Perhaps that was a prediction of how men would wrongly fully dominate women rather than a prescription of how things ought to be. Yet, there is some evidence that God seemed to think that men are rightfully in charge of women. When the barren Sarah laughed about a divine promise that she would bear a child at an advanced age, God complained to Abraham about his wife’s laughter (2). Is this not an expression of Abraham’s “headship” of his household?!

The passage in which God appears to speak to a husband about his wife’s alleged misbehaviour has been on my mind this whole week. It linked in my mind to the image, circulated on social media, of actor Adam Sandler putting his hand on the leg of Clare Foy, an actress sitting next to him during an interview. In the widely circulated image, Foy looks uncomfortable. (I must mention that I had not seen the rest of the tape until later, nor was I aware that Foy released a statement that: “We don’t believe anything was intended by Adam’s gesture and it has caused no offence to Claire.Regardless of the facts in the Sandler-Foy case too many men behave in entitled ways toward women. Does this verse not imply that God regarded Abraham as Sara’s boss and therefore complained about his wife to him?!

Perhaps not. Both Abraham and Sarah both responded with laughter to God’s promise that Sarah, aged 90, and Abraham aged 100, would have a child together (4). Both of them were deserving of reprimand (5) because they doubted God’s promise based on the available evidence, of their advanced age and the impossibility that a birth could occur. God chose not to reprimand Abraham at that time because to do would detract from the celebration of a significant history altering act that Abraham was engaged in at that time. Circumcising himself which symbolised that men can constrain their sexual drive and commit to doing so as part of an overall covenant with God (6). There is a precedent that proves the principle that God would not distract from celebration of a great moment with punishment when a sin occurred around the time the Ten Commandments were given, but there was no punishment or reprimand (7).

Abraham had ample justification to be sceptical about a miraculous birth, and a covenant to transcend human frailties. This is expressed in him falling on his face (8). God hints at a reprimand by telling him “but indeed Sarah will give birth!” Have faith! (9)

Sara is keen on evidence based approach. According to one interpretation her laughter was not about God’s impossible promise, but in surprise to her body changing suddenly into a younger version of herself, losing her wrinkles and suddenly having her period. This is what upset God. This looking for evidence and only when it is presented belief follows (10). If we want our society to work, we need to believe despite some evidence to the contrary that we can make it work.

When God reprimanded Sarah, through Abraham, it was intended for both of them. For Abraham indirectly and for Sarah directly (11). In this interpretation the question about Sarah’s laughter is not about male position, but about a delicately delivered lesson about faith at a particularly tricky time. This removes one more Biblical excuse for male chauvinism. Based on available evidence, many men will continue to relate to women appallingly. However I choose to put aside that evidence and keep my faith that men can and will learn to relate to women as equals, with care and respect.

  1. Genesis 3:16
  2. Genesis 18:9-14
  3. Genesis 17:15-17
  4. Midrash Hagadol, cited in Osnayim Latorah, p. 121, (thanks to Chayim Lando for drawing this to my attention) and Akedat Yitzchak 18:1
  5. Akedat Yitzchak 18:1
  6. Exodus 24, as explained in Vayikra Rabbah 20, cited in Akedat Yitzchak 18:1
  7. Genesis 17:17 as interpreted in Akedat Yitzchak 18:1
  8. Genesis 17:18-19 as interpreted in Akedat Yitzchak 18:1
  9. Ohr Hachayim on Genesis 18:12-13, drawing on Midrash, Talmud, Bava Metzia, cited in Torah Shlaima p.761, 154.