We have had the chance to be each other’s Chevruta in Queer Talmud Study and a number of other projects and are thinking about this D’var as a kind of outloud-unfinished Chevruta study of this parsha. This D’var is also a poem--in that poems are good multivocal texts and there are many voices here other than ours--and it is a letter...to Sarah.
Here are the bones of what we just read--with all it’s silences and troubling euphemisms: Sarai has become Sarah (Abram, Abraham) and they are having trouble getting pregnant. Before we become slaves in Egypt, we are slave owners: Sarah owns an Egyptian woman named Hagar. She decides that Hagar will have the child she cannot with Abraham. Ishmael is born. Then when both Sarah and Abraham are in triple digits, “God remembers Sarah” and she gets pregnant. Both Sarah and Abraham laugh at the news. Isaac is born and circumcised eight days later. Isaac and Ishmael grow. When Isaac is weaned there is a feast day and when Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing she tells Abraham to “cast out” Hagar and Ishmael so that only Isaac will be Abraham’s heir. We are told that this troubles Abraham, but God tells him to do whatever Sarah says.
I had a question reapproaching this text: How does the way we read our texts ritually--meaning generously and critically--allow us to read each other (ritually) into a kinder community?
Partially inspired by other burgeoning Jewish and Queer spaces of study and ritual (in which our Chevruta-ing began), I wanted to know: In what ways does learning to read our texts and our tradition generously and as fiercely ours (in the sense that we belong to it and it to us no matter what myriad kinds of machitzas of history have tried to take it from us) allows for an important kind of generosity with each other? I have found that in rigorous, joyful, egal spaces of Jewish learning people are able to encounter one another who might have otherwise written each other off.
This is a challenging text in this regard that often feels that it pushes back against the season it is placed in.
Ruth Behar, Cubana Jewess anthropologist names this parsha “a story of women wronging women.” and goes on to ask why we read this story on Rosh Hashanah? The text hands us so many broken relationships as we are coming to a season where we want to put energy into repair. Behar quotes Renita Weems writing that we read this story at a time when we want: “‘to risk loving again those who have wounded us’ and [want to be] ready for ‘others to trust us to try again despite the fact that we have broken their hearts.’”
Ruth Behar pointed us to two other voices we wanted to share with you:
“What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face? What woman’s terms of oppression have become precious and necessary to her as a ticket into the fold of the righteous, away from the cold winds of self-scrutiny?” --Audre Lorde
“We are not only descendants of slaves, but we are also the descendants of slave owners…just as we have had to struggle to rid ourselves of slavish behaviors, we must as ruthlessly eradicate any desire to be mistress or ‘master.’ –Alice Walker
Behar goes on: “I bring the full burden of the procreative weight that rests on the shoulders of Jewish women to bear upon the story of Sarah and Hagar because it is not at all easy to feel compassion for Sarah, yet we must feel compassion for her if we are to inherit something better from this foremother than self-loathing for ourselves as women and as Jews.”
We wondered what that meant? We didn’t think it meant forgiving Sarah, we did think it meant wondering about her...as her whole self inside and outside this parsha. So, we asked you-all what questions you had for Sarah! And Shelby wove those questions into a letter to Sarah:
So many daughters are here today, sitting quietly, listening, bearing your name. If I asked them to raise their hands, would you see the constellation of palms that came both from your body and the bodies you exiled? What wounds did they and we inherit that we don’t speak of?
How are we all related to you and not related to you at all? Is our connection imagined, chosen, textual, blood, cursed, blessed? All of the above?
Can we read you “generously” or is it violent to even attempt to imagine why you did what you did? To Hagar. To Ishmael.
How could you, Sarah? How could you.
How could you be okay with throwing out a child to die?
How could you be okay with this? What sort of God sets such a person up to be the primogenitor of His people?
And yet, here you are again, Sarah, in front of us, doing what you did last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.
Sarah, do you listen to us as we ritualize the barbed banishment you demanded?
Sarah, this room swells with the expansiveness of what being a Jew means for us, in our own time. As we look to your story and thread it into our now now… among the complicated “us” gathered here today, we are the cast-out and the cast-ers, we are you and not you and both at once. We’re not one thing. And yet, we gather, a fraught lineage with you at the mouth, Sarah.
Could you imagine us? Did you try?
Do you see us now? Some days we pick at the scabs of stringency you left behind.
Audre Lorde asked, “What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face? What woman’s terms of oppression have become precious and necessary to her as a ticket into the fold of the righteous, away from the cold winds of self-scrutiny?”
Sarah, what contracts for supposed safety did you sign and what did you barter off in the process? Did it seem inevitable, everyone playing their parts? Some of us had our hands forced over ink too, and some of our mothers did, and grandmothers. But what is the difference between force and complicity? How could you have found agency in your context? How can we?
Sarah, what did your mother teach you about your body?
Did your hips crack, your brittle bone, when Isaac slid from you?
How does the cruel centering of fertility warp our relationships to the value of bodies beyond what they can “produce”?
Were you actually on board with Abraham’s hospitality or did it cross a boundary you didn’t know you got to name?
Did you need to find someone to make the villain so you would not be the crone made enemy? What was your relationship to Hagar really like, as a fully realized human, not an allegorical stand-in?
Does your story show us a shift from the matrilineal to patrilineal tradition?
What's hurting you? What are you scared of?
What fed you? And were you ever full? Where did your enoughness live?
Did your jealousy singe your throat as you spat out exile for Hagar and Ishmael?
Did you have more in common with Hagar than with Abraham himself?
Did you ever apologize? If so, why did that not get written down?
What did you need? Why didn’t you ask for that instead? Did you ever sit beneath a cedar and yearn for wholeness?
What other wells might you have found, if you unwound yourself from the awful myth of scarcity?
Sarah, what do you want to ask of your namesakes now, of your descendents? What can our power look like if it is not a weapon?
Were you real? Are you now?
Have you sought repair? Justice? Healing?
If so, how did you do it?
How do we wrestle with whatever shadows we each inherited? How do we move towards becoming more whole without hiding how we are capable of harm or that we’ve been harmed or both?
Sarah, how could you transform after what you did?
This year, how can any of us?