November 13, 2009

Vayeitzei: A Path to Follow

The last decade or so of commentary on the competition, or lack thereof, between Rachel and Leah provides a fascinating path to follow.

Here are four translations of Genesis/Breishit 30:8, followed by commentary from R. Ruth Sohn* in Beginning the Journey: Toward a Women’s Commentary on Torah (1998):**

And Rachel said, “A fateful contest [naftulei elohim] I waged with my sister [niftalti im-achiti]; yes, and I have prevailed [yacholti].” So she named him Naphtali.

…”In awesome grapplings I have grappled with my sister and yes, I won out.”

…”Sacred schemes have I maneuvered to equal my sister, and I have also prevailed.”

…”A mighty rivalry have I waged with my sister; moreover, I have prevailed.” [emphasis in the original]

— Genesis/Breishit 30:8 (Beginning the Journey, Alter, Stone**)

As we read about the competition between Rachel and Leah in Vayetze, we recollect that rivalry between brothers is one of the most striking themes in Genesis, beginning with the story of the first two brothers, Cain and Abel….Does the two sisters’ relationship mirror the brothers’ situations or does it provide a contrast?

[Discussion includes comments from Talmud tractate Megillah and to Genesis Rabbah]

…Perhaps the Rabbis were simply uncomfortable with the notion of women competing with each other. As feminists, should we claim that it is natural for women as well as men to be competitive, and celebrate the competition between the two sisters? Or should we claim as a model the Rabbis’ portrait of Leah and Rachel overcoming their jealousy and rivalry with compassion and a sense of shared purpose?

How we answer this question has potentially enormous implications.


Later in the same volume “Questions for Discussion” encourages the reader to examine comments from other authors — rabbis Ellen Lippman, Linda Motzkin and Audrey Pollack — to “determine in which of Rabbi Sohn’s categories each writer’s comments fall” and consider the “enormous implications.”

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (TWC, 2008)** offers these comments:*

“I have prevailed.” Heb. yacholti. As she engages in sibling rivalry, Rachel also struggles with God in order to win the ability to give birth. Her naming of Naphtali is verbally lined with God’s later renaming of Jacob as Israel: “for you have struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed (vatuchal) (32:29). Both Rachel and Jacob prevail in contests doubly waged with people and with God.

…The turning point in the sisters’ relationship comes with their readiness to enter into an exchange — to give each what the other lacks….


In their study guide for this portion, Women of Reform Judaism ask the reader to consider, at several points in the story, “what is the current state of the relationship between Rachel and Leah?” Gone, however, from both TWC and the study guide appear to be

most mention, and all interrogation, of traditional commentary;
any questioning of the role of gender in the text or its interpretation; and
any questioning of the “implications” of any reading.

*R. Ruth Sohn was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1982; in addition to her role as teacher at the Milken Community High School of Stephen Wise Temple, she teaches adults and has widely published biblical commentary, poetry and prose midrash. (She also contributed to TWC.)

Rachel Havrelock, who prepared the commentary for parashat Vayeitzei in TWC, was working toward her masters’ degree when Beginning the Journey was published; she is now assistant professor of English and Jewish Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Her scholarship focuses on biblical narrative and symbolic geography as well as gender in the Hebrew Bible.

**Please see Source Materials for full citations and more information.

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Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.

The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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Breishit, Gender, midrash

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