I recently took my children to see the new Disney movie, Moana. I loved that the main character, Moana, stands in contrast to other Disney heroines. There is no Prince Charming, hunky ice seller, or rakish thief; the film’s focus is not Moana’s search for love. Instead, it focuses on her bravery, determination, and dedication to save her people.
What a powerful message for our children – and for us.
Moana reminds us that gender norms are not innate, but constructed and complicated. My 3-year-old daughter sometimes plays mommy with her cuddly toys, but mostly she plays with Avengers figures like Iron Man and the Hulk. Recently, when she was dressed up in her Captain America costume, I told her, “Eleanor, you truly are a warrior princess.” She replied, “No, Mommy, I’m not a princess.”
Eleanor is fierce, feisty, and independent – and I want her to stay that way. I want her and her brother, Julian, to always have strong female role models in their lives and to know that women can be powerful actors.
I admit that I’m biased here. I’ve taught classes about gender issues and wrote my rabbinic thesis on wise Biblical women, focusing on women who determine their own fate, who speak out about unequal power structures, and who carve out new roles in their society. Our texts include examples of such warrior women, including the Daughters of Zelophehad and Devorah. We need to share these stories of strong women, role model women, women we can learn from – fierce, feisty, independent women.
One reason we should teach these stories is because mention of women in the Torah is often sparse and unflattering. Too often, women are only discussed in the context of marriage and child-rearing, and they frequently go unnamed. How do they affect their societies? We don’t know.
Some argue against reading the Torah through 21st-century eyes. Who am I to criticize an ancient, sacred text that was canonized so long ago? And yet, isn’t that the point of Reform Judaism? To question? To apply the lessons of the past – good and bad – to the present?
Parashah Vayeitzei, which we read earlier this month, is a perfect example of a missed opportunity to highlight the positive roles of women. This parashah tells the story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. Jacob sees Rachel and instantly falls in love with her, but Rachel’s father, Laban, is won’t let Jacob to marry his daughter unless he provides seven years of service first. Jacob agrees, but at the end of the seven years is tricked into marrying her older sister Leah instead. Only after another seven years of labor does Jacob get to marry Rachel.
The human damage is immense. Jacob loved Rachel, not Leah, and Leah was so heartbroken that she embedded the wreckage of her marriage into the names of her children. The first child, Reuben, means “Adonai saw my plight: yes, now my husband will love me.” When she became pregnant again, she bore a son, Simeon, meaning, “Adonai heard that I am despised and has given me this one too.” Her next son was Levi, meaning, “Now, this time, my husband will be attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” (Genesis 29:31-34).
As readers, we’re meant to have sympathy for Leah. Here we have a woman so desperate for affection and love that she passed her bitterness on to the next generation.
I want a better life for Leah – but mostly, I want her to be better. Leah defines herself by her love for a man who does not love her back, and her resentment is passed onto the next generation. The rivalry between Joseph, Jacob’s son with Rachel, defines the rest of the book of Genesis. The text clearly encourages us not to repeat the mistakes of this broken family, but to learn from them.
But there’s also an important societal lesson for us in this parashah. At last, a Torah portion is largely devoted to women – but unfortunately, it displays women at their worst, a melodrama of jealously, rivalry, and pain. Of course, women can tear each other apart, but surely we should start telling more positive stories about women that can celebrate the multiple ways we contribute to society – less Leah and more Devorah, warrior women who are fierce, feisty, and independent.
Our secular lives need more warrior women in them, too.
The past year has not been kind to women. We’ve seen renewed assaults on the role of women in public life. The ability of women to make independent choices about our bodies is under attack. Women should be judged on our abilities, not whether we are a five, an eight, or a 10. We should walk safely when and where we want, dressed how we want.
Next year, my synagogue will host a series of informal coffeehouse conversations, including a discussion of women in our society. This is an opportunity for meaningful conversations about sexism, stereotypes, and inequality, where we can acknowledge the progress that has been made and think about how to maintain these advances. Beyond such conversations, we can also support women with our pocketbooks, our votes, and our voices. We can celebrate women’s contributions to society.
Together, we can work toward a world that supports women and encourages women to be better. Together, we can build a future where our role models are the strong women from our tradition and the warrior princesses like Moana – fierce, feisty, and independent.