Click here: Parshat Chayei Sarah
Women with a Voice
After the death of Sarah, Avraham turns his attention to finding a wife for Yitzchak. He is quite insistent that this wife be from his land and his birthplace, and not from the "daughters of Canaan". What is the reason for this opposition? Perhaps there was an assumption that their culture was a corrupt one and that this would shape the character of any potential wife for Yitzchak. Alternatively, or additionally, one can argue that Avraham is particularly interested in those of his homeland. This may be because they were more spiritually in sync with Avraham - remember that Terach began the trek to Canaan before Avraham, and without the benefit of the Divine command - or because theirs was a more moral culture, as evidenced by Rivka, Lavan's future actions not withstanding.
I would like to suggest that it was something else about the culture of Haran that attracted Avraham, a profound way in which the family structure differed in these two places. Let us start with the concern of Avraham's servant: "Perhaps the woman will not desire to follow me to this land. Should I return your son to the land which you came from?" (24:5). This concern is understandable, but the specifics raise certain questions. Notice that the concern is that the woman will not want to return to the land, not that her father will not allow her to do so. Later laws in the Torah make it clear that it is the father who controls and speaks for his daughter, and yet the father is not mentioned here, only the woman. Also notice that there seems to be a possibility that the husband will go to live with the wife. This is quite strange, as in patriarchal societies, which was the norm in those times, it would always be the woman who would be taken into the husband's home. Certainly there must have been exceptions, but the more natural question would have been: "If she refuses, can I then find a wife from somewhere else?" It seems that Avraham's servant knew something about that society which shaped his particular concerns, concerns how the woman would act and what she would demand.
The place of women in Haran comes up again when the servant arrives there and interacts with Rivka and her family. After Rivka passes the test with the watering of the servant and the camels, the servant asks her "Whose daughter are you?" to which she responds: "I am the daughter of Betuel, who is the son of Milkah, whom she bore to Nachor." What was that again? This isn't how we are used to hearing genealogies and family attributions. The standard is father-son. Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov. "These are the generations of Yitzchak the son of Avraham, Avraham begat Yitzchak," is what the verse (25:19) states. Rivka's answer should have been "I am the daughter of Betuel, the son of Nachor." What is Milkah's name doing here?
Milkah actually showed up at the end of last week's parsha as well. "After these things it was told to Avraham saying, behold Milkah has given birth to Nachor your brother..." (22:20). Why not "Nachor has had born to him the following children..."? Why the focus on the mother? It is possible that this is a special case, that Milkah was an important personage. But what seems more likely is that we are encountering a different society. Not a patriarchy, where the family structure is father-son, but a matriarchy, where the family structure involves the mother. (I owe this insight to the book "Throughout your Generations Forever," by Nancy Jay.)
To be clear: this does not mean that the mother was the head of the household or held political power. There is doubt whether any true matriarchies, societies with women at the head, have ever existed. Perhaps a better term is a matrifocal society, or one of matrilineal descent. In such societies it was the men who primarily held the power. But the women had more power, and they defined the family structure. The question was not who was the father - the answer to which is always somewhat in doubt - but rather who was the mother. The head of the household would not be the (presumed) father, but rather the mother's brother (on her mother's side), or an older brother. Thus, while a man was at the head, the structuring around the mother ensured that the family was truly all related to one another. It removed the anxiety around paternity. (For a nice example of this anxiety, see the Rashi on the verse "Avraham begat to Yitzchak").
We can thus understand why Rivka identifies herself as the granddaughter of Milkah. The servant, however, when he repeated the story, reframed Rivka's answer in his own cultural norms: "And she said, 'I am the daughter of Betuel the son of Nachor, whom Milkah bore to him.'" (24:47). The servant speaks the language of a patriarchal culture, and mentions Milkah as an aside. And, anyway, Milkah bore Betuel "to" Nachor. In the servant's version, Betuel is Nachor's child, not Milkah's.
Now, if this is the case, we should have expected to hear in Rivka's answer the mention of her mother, or at least her mother's brother, as well. Perhaps that would have been too confusing for a stranger from a patriarchal society, who anyway needed to reframe her response. But if we didn't hear about them now, we will hear about them soon. For what does Rivka do after she leaves Avraham's servant? "And the young woman ran and she told her mother's household according to these events." (24:28). Mother's household? Isn't it the father's household? Rashi notes this problem and responds that this is not a "household", but rather a special room for her mother to sit, and that Rivka, like all daughters, ran first to her mother before her father. The simple sense of the verse, however, is otherwise: it was her mother's household, not her father's. And consider this exchange: "Does your father's house have a place for us to stay?", "And she said to him, 'We have much straw and fodder, and also a place to sleep." (24:24-25). This was a matriarchal family and the father was not in the picture.
Rivka's father, Betuel, is actually quite invisible in this entire episode. Who is it that runs to the servant? Not Betuel, but Lavan, Rivka's brother. Now notice what happens when the servant completes his story: "And Lavan and Betuel responded, 'From God has this matter come!'" (24:50). Why is Lavan, the brother, mentioned before Betuel, the father? Rashi's answer: "Lavan was a wicked man, and he jumped to respond before his father." Such might be true in a patriarchal society, but in a matriarchal society, in Haran, the reason is clear: It is the brother that heads the family, not the father. And notice to whom the servant gives the gifts. Not to Betuel, the father, but to Rivka's "brother and mother." And notice, again, who makes the final decision. It is the brother and the mother: "And her brother and her mother said, 'Let the lass stay with us a year or ten months..." (24:55). Rashi again asks, "And where was Betuel". His answer - Betuel was going to refuse and an angel came and smote him dead. The simpler answer is, that in a matriarchal society such as this, even if Betuel were around, it was not his decision to make. He was, for all intents and purposes, invisible.
The same can be seen when Lavan and Rivka's mother send Rivka away. It is they two, not Betuel, who send her away, and the verse relates that: "they sent Rivka, their sister..." (24:59), not their daughter. Similarly when they blessed her, they said: "Our sister, you shall be for thousands of myriads...". (24:60). It is Lavan who heads the family, and Rivka is "their", the family's, sister, not its daughter.
And this brings us back to the servant's concerns. Avram's servant was concerned that in such a society the woman would stay put and Yitzchak would be asked to relocate. And he was mostly concerned about what the woman - not her father - would say. For in such societies, women had a voice, and what they would say could matter. And, lo and behold, we find that the brother and mother gave the final decision to Rivka. "Let us call the lass, and ask her decision.". (24:57).
Perhaps this is why Avraham was so insistent on the servant going to Haran. Avraham wanted to make sure that Yitzchak's wife was a woman who had her own voice. It is worth noting that it is from the episode of asking Rivka's opinion that the Sages learn that although a father can marry off his underage daughter, he is forbidden to do so, and he must wait until she is an adult and can choose her own husband. (Kiddushin 41a). Avram wanted to bring in this voice from the women of Haran, and the Sages made sure to bring in this voice as well. It is this voice, the woman's voice, that must be heard.
Avraham had learned this lesson well: "Everything that Sarah tells you, listen to her voice" (21:12). Sarah, also from Haran, did what was necessary to ensure the survival of her family. And for this family, for this new religion, to succeed, it would require not just the men, but the women as well, women like Sarah, women with a voice. Women like Sarah and women like Rivka. As we will find out in next week's parasha, it was Rivka who, using her strength and her voice, and now finding a way to operate in a patriarchal society, followed in Sarah's ways and acted to ensure the continuity of the Jewish family.