A Feminist Manifesto: Haftarat Ki Tetze, Isaiah 54:1-10

September 1, 2014

No religious topics justify the old adage, “two Jews, three opinions” more than questions concerning 1) women; and 2) non-Jews. Denominations and groups within the Jewish community have ripped themselves apart over them, with no end in sight. Haftarat Ki Tetze may be the shortest Haftarah in the cycle (only 10 verses), and supposedly a Haftarah of Consolation, but it gives us no comfort, throwing both of them at us directly. First:

Shout, O barren one,
You who bore no child!
Shout aloud for joy,
You who did not travail!
For the children of the wife forlorn
Shall outnumber those of the espoused
     –said the Lord….

I cringed when I read this, because it reinforces one of the oldest elements of sexist ideology, namely, that a woman’s value – both to herself and to society – rests upon her ability to bear children. Wisdom? Service to the community? Contributions to the culture? They all pale in comparison to her womb. Little wonder that Jews, sensibly rejecting this world-view, “>Sava de-Mishpatim, in which two rabbis meet a man who appears to be an eccentric and bizarre donkey-driver. It turns out that the man is a Torah sage; he explains that a seemingly dry portion of Leviticus setting forth the marriage laws of priestly daughters actually presents a cosmic account of the reincarnation of the soul.

Nowhere is Judaism’s revolt against literalism more aggressive than when it comes to children. Children themselves are the paradigmatic metaphor. In one of the most famous Talmudic lessons, we read:

Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Haninah: Torah scholars increase peace in the world. As it says, “All of Your children are students of God; great is the peace of Your children” (Isaiah 54:13). Read this not banayich — 'Your children' — but rather bonayich — 'Your builders'.  (Berachot 64a)

“Children” thus can be read as a metaphor for Torah scholarship. (And in case you missed it, this teaching comes from Isaiah chapter 54: precisely the chapter at the heart of this week’s Haftarah.). This move is hardly a stretch: after all, in modern English we call a scholar marked by inventiveness and productivity as “prolific,” quite literally, one who creates life.

So now what does the promise of barrenness’ end mean? Well, if we know that women will have more “children,” we can conclude that Isaiah’s prophecy heralds the flourishing of women as great Torah scholars. What appears to be a restatement of sexism is in fact a something of a feminist manifesto.

This interpretation of Isaiah might have the advantage of gender egalitarianism. It also has the advantage of being a better and more accurate prophecy. The Haftarah later reads:

Your offspring shall dispossess nations
And shall people the desolate towns.

This passage should make all contemporary Jews feel uncomfortable. As “>recently updated, during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, Palestine’s Arabs were, in fact, dispossessed. (I believe that in the context of the war and under the circumstances of the time, such dispossession was morally justified, but that is a different matter).

What can we do with this? One could, of course, interpret the passage literally, and blandly assert that prophecy generally condones dispossession. But it makes far more sense as an empirical and moral matter to continue the interpretation that I advanced earlier, and see Jewish “offspring” as the expansion of Torah.

After all, what are, in fact, the offspring of Torah? A lot of it, of course, is the subsequent millennia of Jewish learning and spirituality, one of the greatest collective achievements of human civilization. But Judaism has “sister” religions, Christianity and Islam, and they are also Torah’s offspring. Christians and Muslims see themselves as worshipping the same God as the Jews do. There are – ahem – differences as to that God’s desires, yet no thoughtful person can deny the profound and abiding theological and spiritual connections between the three monotheistic faiths.

Seeing Christianity and Islam as the offspring not only avoids the moral problem with accepting dispossession, but it also makes the prophecy more powerful historically: after all, Christianity and Islam “dispossessed” a tremendous amount of idolatry and paganism in their time. This “dispossession” makes any literal dispossession minuscule in comparison. Instead of thinking of dispossession as a physical action, we should look at it as the spiritual triumph of monotheism. (Historical accuracy also favors the interpretation I advanced above concerning the opening of Israel’s womb: whatever one might say about world Jewry, one cannot claim that we are particularly numerous).

We are hardly the first generation of Jews who have objected to one or more aspects of the tradition. But instead of either rejecting these aspects or supinely submitting to them, we can use the fantastic riches of the tradition to subvert it internally. This subversion, too, is part of the tradition. Thus it ever was and thus it ever will be.

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