Tortured Readings on the Tenure Track

Tortured women in the Bible, tortured readings of the Bible text, my my.

I was asked a question about Hagar a few weeks ago, and since Hagar is first mentioned in this week’s parsha — Lech Lecha — this is an appropriate time to post the question and how I responded. Question and answer follow:

Question: I am currently a student studying at the University level “Women in Religion”. Being of Jewish background I found myself face to face being told a lot about a religion I know very little about. We are studying “texts of terror” which outlines women who were mistreated in the Torah.

4 females we came across were Hagar, Tamar, Levite’s Concubine, and Jepthah’s daughter. I would like to know– if Judaism is one of the most “accepting” and “pro female/equality” religion why there are stories about women being brutally raped, or thrown to be ‘known’ as is said in the Torah as sacrifices by fathers, and spouses.

Answer: You could ask the same question about any textbook of, say, abnormal psychology or criminal law. Why do such textbooks contain explicit case studies of behavior that is abnormal or criminal? The question answers itself.

The Torah contains stories of good people and bad people, selfless and righteous behavior as well as reprehensible behavior. To get to the bottom line — what does the Torah mean by telling us these stories? — you have to read the stories in context. To understand how Jews have always understood their most holy texts, you also have to read classic Jewish commentaries. The most famous such commentator was the great medieval scholar, Rashi, whose writings have been cherished by Jews for centuries. He, in turn, usually bases his comments on Talmudic discussions that were written down about 1500 years ago, and that in turn go back to 3000-year-old oral traditions explaining and elaborating on the written Torah texts.

It would take many pages to discuss each of the women you mention, and I can’t compete with your professor in the space of a short letter, but I want to mention at least a few points. Perhaps you can find a knowledgeable person in your area with whom you can discuss each of these issues in further depth, as it comes up during the semester.

Hagar initially was treated far better than she had any right to expect. Think about it. She was a maid. Her mistress, Sarah, was a beautiful, wealthy, well-known and prominent woman. Sarah herself chose a second wife for her own husband in an act of breathtaking selflessness–because she wanted her husband to be happy, to have children, and she saw that she herself could not have children.

How many women could do what Sarah did, bring another woman into her home that way, give up her own intimacy with her beloved husband of so many years? And of all the women she could have chosen, she chose the one she considered most suitable to be a mate for Avraham and the mother of his children — Hagar.

This incredible gift she gave Hagar, raising her from servant to co-wife and paying her the ultimate compliment thereby, was repaid — how? The Torah says that when Hagar became pregnant, she belittled Sarah and treated her with contempt. (Rashi says that Hagar assumed that Sarah must not be as righteous as she seemed, or G-d would have given her a child, just as He gave a baby to the “righteous” Hagar. What do you think of a person who assumes that if anything bad happens to someone, that person somehow *must* deserve it?!)

So Sarah responded with absolutely justified anger, and Hagar ended up running away. Who mistreated whom here?

Anyway, an angel told Hagar to return to her home — suitably chastened this time, and more respectful and appreciative towards Sarah — and we hear nothing further about “mistreatment” for fifteen years. Then the Torah says that Sarah saw how Yishmael (Hagar’s son) was “playing” with Sarah’s little boy, Yitschak — and Sarah objected. Rashi says Yishmael, a teenager, was playing William Tell games with his toddler brother, shooting arrows at him “playfully.”

Sarah well understood that her son’s life was in danger. Avraham, however, loved his older son — understandably — and didn’t want to hear what Sarah said. Finally, G-d himself told Avraham in a prophetic message, “Listen to Sarah.” Sarah was wiser than her husband, say the Sages of the Talmud. So, reluctantly, Avraham sent Hagar and Yishmael away — at G-d’s command. However, Avraham asked G-d to bless and protect them, and G-d did so.

Later, after Sarah’s death, the Torah says that Avraham married a woman named Keturah. Rashi (based on the Talmud) says that this woman was in fact Hagar, that she had repented for whatever sins she had earlier committed, and that she was a tzadekes — a righteous woman, which is why Avraham considered it appropriate to remarry her. Her new name reflected her new, higher spiritual level.

I would bet my bottom dollar that if your professor is any kind of a feminist or political creature, she is not going to discuss the story of Hagar the same way that classic Jewish sources do.

Beli neder (without a vow) I will write about the other three cases you mentioned, when I have more time. If you don’t hear from me please write again and nudge me.

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10 Responses

  1. ksh says:

    The ramban (breishis 16:6) on “va’ti’aneha sarai va’tivrach mi’paneha” (and sarai oppressed her and she -i.e. hagar- fled from her) says that sarah did sin by oppressing hagar, and that abraham sinned by tolerating sarah’s mistreatment of hagar. The ramban adds that God listened to Hagar and allowed her son yishmael to become an oppressor of Jews as a punishment for Sarah’s historic sin.

    Others disagree, and cast Sarah’s behavior in more positive light, but for the ramban, Sarah’s behavior is not “absolutely justified,” and the torah is telling us of sinful behavior.

  2. Gil Student says:

    Here is a link to a very interesting textual analysis by R. Elhanan Samet that supports your understanding of the Sarah-Hagar episode.


  3. Gregory Titievsky says:

    How about the following interpretation: In the male dominated society of the time, Sarah was forced to prove her (supposed) sterility – that it was she that was barren and not Avraham. Therefore, she was forced (by the societal norms of the time) to give Hagar as a wife to her husband. However, when she conceived and gave birth to a kid, throwing out a maid was “a simple thing to do”. In case you don’t publish this, please reply me over the email why this answer is not possible from pshat reading of the text.

  4. Toby Katz says:

    KSH is correct: some commentators hold that Sarah did mistreat Hagar when Hagar acted disrespectfully towards her.

    However, the following actions of Sarah are NOT considered sinful acts or acts of mistreatment by ANY of the classical Jewish commentators:
    1. giving Hagar in marriage to Avraham
    2. sending Hagar and Yishmael away to prevent harm to Yitzchak (Hashem Himself told Avraham to listen to Sarah, and that’s right there in the text, no commentary needed.)

    I don’t actually know what the lady professor told her class but I do know that in general, lady professors look at the whole Torah with a jaundiced eye. It’s highly unlikely that this particular course — “Texts of Terror” — will have anything positive to say about the treatment of Hagar.

    Anyone who majored in English or history before circa 1980 has no idea — literally, no idea — how bad things have become, how tendentious and politicized the teaching of the liberal arts has become in the typical American university.

  5. ksh says:

    You’re probably right about the course and liberal arts generally.

    I cited the ramban to make the point that not all commentators view Sarah’s behavior in this episode positively, as that adds the complexity of our tradition to the mix. After all, the larger point is not if Sarah’s behavior is viewed positively or negatively, but that our tradition doesn’t glide over the reality. I thought the ramban’s willingness to judge Sarah negatively might make that point.

  6. Toby Katz says:

    Gregory Titievsky, you wrote that in the male dominated society of the time, Sarah was forced to prove her infertility.

    If anything is forced, it is your interpretation. It does not flow naturally from the narrative at all. You must have gone to a top university.

    Where in the text is there any indication that a test was needed to determine whether it was Sarah or Avraham who was the infertile partner? They were married for decades before Sarah gave Hagar to Avraham.

    And where is the indication that the initiative for this act came from Avraham, or from a “male-dominated society”? Of course, the assumption that the society of that time was “male-dominated” is a very reasonable one, given that every known human society in history has been male-dominated. (Seen the US Senate lately?)

    But the narrative makes it clear that the initiative came entirely from Sarah — and does suggest a high level of selflessness on Sarah’s part, since her husband was, if not happy, then at least resigned to remaining childless. He said to Hashem, “What will you give me, and I am childless?” At the point where he said that (sorry too tired to check the exact verse right now), he could have gone ahead and taken a second wife on HIS initiative, but he did not. Apparently he either loved Sarah too much to do that to her, or he felt that he wanted a child either with her or with no one.

    Or maybe he knew that both he and Sarah were infertile? Why else would he say, “Ve’anochi holech arriri” — “and I am going childless” — without trying to take another wife? After all, many men had more than one wife in those days and it was not considered morally wrong. Statistically, in about a third of all marriages struggling with infertility, /both/ partners have issues. Maybe he knew that both he and Sarah needed miracles to have children. So who says Sarah had to prove anything?

    If anything, she might have wanted to prove that she was NOT infertile by giving Avraham a second wife. If the second wife failed to get pregnant, that would strongly suggest that it was Avraham, not Sarah, who was infertile. Why would she want to prove that she WAS infertile? Or why would her society “force” her to prove it?

    Is there any suggestion that if she was proven to be infertile, her husband would divorce her? None of the Avos, not Avraham, nor Yitzchak, nor Yaakov, ever suggested that he would divorce an infertile wife. We see later in Scriptures, with Chana’s husband and with Manoach –father of Samson — that no one seemed to consider divorcing an infertile wife. They might take a second wife, but would not divorce the infertile wife. So to what end would society “force” Sarah to prove whether she was infertile or not?

    As for throwing out the maid after Wife Number One finally had a baby, where do you see that that was “a simple thing to do”? There are several indications in Parshas Lech Lecha that Avraham loved Yishmael very much and was tremendously grieved at having to send him away from home — and did so reluctantly, and only after Hashem explicitly said, “Listen to Sarah.” Surely in a male-dominated society, if the man loved his son and wanted to keep his son home, his wife would have no say in the matter? And if he loved Wife Number Two, then Wife Number One would have no say?

    Again, all the action in the house seems to come from Sarah, not from Avraham. In fact, she comes across as a decidedly strong and forceful personality.

    And one other thing: the pasuk specifically says that Sarah gave Hagar to Avraham as a WIFE — not as a concubine. The difference in status is enormous, the selflessness on Sarah’s part even more notable. And the pasuk makes it clear that this was all Sarah’s initiative, not Avraham’s.

  7. Shira Schmidt says:

    You might look at the discussion by the late Nehama Leibowitz (Studies in Genesis)in “Sarah’s treatment of Hagar”. After close textual analysis she suggests that in initially proposing Hagar become a full co-wife, she (Sarah) overestimated her own ability to suppress normal feelings of jealousy. Nehama Leibowitz writes, “Had Sarah not wished to suppress her instincts and overcome every vestige of jealousy for her rival, had she not dared to scale these unusual heights of selflessness, she would not have fallen victim to the sin of “Sarah dealty harshly with her [Hagar]”- and there may not have been born that individual whose descendants have proved a source of trouble to ISrael to this very day. Who knows?”

  8. DovBear says:

    And one other thing: the pasuk specifically says that Sarah gave Hagar to Avraham as a WIFE —not as a concubine. The difference in status is enormous, the selflessness on Sarah’s part even more notable. And the pasuk makes it clear that this was all Sarah’s initiative, not Avraham’s.

    Huh? Elswhere Sarah calls Hagar “the maid” and she calls Ishmael “the son of the maid” So it’s not at all clear that Hagar had eaqual status – even the angel of God refers to Sarah as Hagar’s mistress… talk about tortured readings…

  9. Chana says:

    יא וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה, הִנָּךְ הָרָה וְיֹלַדְתְּ בֵּן, וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ יִשְׁמָעֵאל, כִּי-שָׁמַע יְהוָה אֶל-עָנְיֵךְ. 11
    And the angel of the LORD said unto her: ‘Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son; and thou shalt call his name Ishmael, because the LORD hath heard thy affliction.

    Agreeing with Shira- “thou shalt call his name Ishmael, because the LORD hath heard thy affliction.”

    Why, according to the pasuk, was Hagar given Ishmael as a child? She lost the baby she was carrying when she ran away, but was rewarded with this son. The reason is very simple- because God heard her afflictions- the afflictions that Sarah afflicted her with.

    Sarah’s anger demonstrates a very powerful lesson, for it is because of this destructive anger that Ishmael came into the world. To claim her anger was fully justified is to ignore the meaning inherent in this verse. This is not my own original thought; I think it’s in the Lubavitch chumash, but I’m not sure. I’ll try to check up on it.

    However, I have heard the interpretation you mention before. As always, there’s more than one way to look at it.

  10. Sholom Simon says:


    You (and others who are participating in this thread) would do well to read the textual analysis that R Gil notes above (with URL’s).

    R Samet notes that the “affliction” that Hagar suffered may well have been her own anguish at being “second fiddle” to Sarah. Furthermore, recall that the angel directs Hagar back to Sarah — something that, certainly, would have been ordered had Sarah been physically afflicting Hagar.

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