Sally Gottesman: Recusing Ourselves from Bone-Ignorance

This drash on Sarah and Hagar, the Torah reading for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah, is in memory of my friend and teacher Helene Aylon, who died from Covid on April 6 at the age of eighty-nine. Helene, a world-renowned Jewish feminist visual artist, loved davening at BJ, admired our rabbis, and began some of the works of her famous pieces of art within the walls of our BJ sanctuary. Deeply committed to both Judaism and feminism, Helene was not willing to sacrifice one for the sake of the other. I hope my words that follow pay homage to the myriad insights she shared with me and the world.

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In her novel Alias Grace Margaret Atwood writes: “[The Bible] says there were two different trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge; but I believe there was only one, and that the Fruit of Life and the Fruit of Good and Evil were the same. And if you ate of it you would die, but if you didn’t eat of it you would die also; although if you did eat of it, you would be less bone-ignorant by the time you got around to your death.”

This Rosh Hashanah, I want to ask, “How can we, as individuals and as a community, be ‘less bone-ignorant’ in our reading and interpreting of the story of Hagar and Sarah?”

I want to posit that one way we can accomplish this goal is to heed Helene Aylon’s insight in her work The Liberation of G-d that “these are indeed the Five Books of Moses. They are Moses’ telling of the story. Not G-d’s.” And, as Helene would say, it is incumbent upon us to “rescue G-d,” rescue the story, and from this new narrative, a more inclusive and better future can emerge.

We come from a rich tradition of asking questions of this story. For example, according to Midrash Genesis Rabbah, Hagar is truly Pharaoh’s daughter, while others, including Rashi, suggest that she was Keturah, the woman Abraham married after Sarah died.

These and many other commentaries on the story are interesting. But as Helene also made eminently clear in her artwork, we have a written history of solely men asking questions of the text and offering answers for the past 2,000 years.

What happens when women get into the conversation?

A Personal Reading, from Me, a Woman Who Has Both Biological and Non-Biological Children:

Unlike the 2,000 years of rabbis who opined on this story and commented on who Sarah and Hagar “really” were and what they “really” felt, I, like Sarah and Hagar, am a woman who has both biological and non-biological children. Like Sarah and Hagar, I had my children with someone I know. Our eldest child is from my womb, to use biblical language. Our next two children were from the womb of my former partner with whom I had these children. All of our children are, without question, our children. All of our three children have the same biological father, much like Ishmael and Yitzchak had the same biological father.

Although there are many facets of my story that do not line up perfectly with the biblical narrative, there are enough similarities that I feel qualified to offer a “first-hand” opinion of the story and a rebuke to many of the commentaries we’ve inherited.

And in two words: I think the story and the commentaries are “bone-ignorant” about Sarah’s and Hagar’s feelings.

Here is why:

When I was the expectant biological mother of our first child, I was conscious of not pushing people away with my own amazement of pregnancy. I especially felt this way in relationship to women who were unable to bear children. Thus, Hagar’s pushing Sarah away does not “ring true” to me.

Two and four years later, when I could no longer carry a child, my then-partner became the biological mother of our two subsequent, much-prayed-for children. I was delighted that she was pregnant with our expected offspring. I, like Sarah, wanted (in my case, more) children, and I was being given the gift of life by another woman. The hoped-for child(ren) were the object of my/our attention, not the nine months of pregnancy … and I was grateful to be in relationship with a woman who could help to give life to children. Thus, Sarah’s pushing Hagar away also does not “ring true” to me.

Admittedly, there are differences between biological and non-biological offspring that Sarah and Hagar both experienced. However, difference does not mean “less”  or “lesser than” in terms of love and care. Indeed, a friend who has both biological and adopted children once described her feelings to me like this: “I think I love my adopted child more purely for who she is than I love my biological children for who they are. I don’t say ‘you are just like your Dad’ and impose some biological destiny on our adopted daughter, since we don’t know who her biological father is.”

And one final example: In chapter 21, which we read on Rosh Hashanah, Sarah banishes Ishmael and Hagar. The impetus, according to the story, was Sarah watching Yitzchak at play with his only biologically related sibling, Ishmael. Was Sarah so evil, was her desire for wealth/inheritance for Yitzchak so strong, that she would deny him his only biologically related sibling? As a mother of biologically related siblings, I want almost nothing more in my life than for my children to be there for one another throughout their lifetimes … just as my parents wanted for me and my siblings. Thus, this portrayal of Sarah’s desire and behavior feels inauthentic to me.

Why then are we told this story of hatred and jealousy, this “bone ignorant” story, if it is much more likely there was tenderness and love?

Three ideas stand out for me.

The first—and most generous—interpretation I can offer is that the men simply did not know and it did not occur to them to talk with women who were biological and non-biological mothers about their experiences.

  • How can we in 5781 learn to listen to women’s first-hand experiences in ways we haven’t until now and make Judaism and our world a richer one?

The second reason is that Moses (or the other man/men) who wrote this story and the rabbis who commented on it were not interested in mothers allying with one another because they feared what might result from this alliance. Thus, he/they invented a story of mothers being jealous and evil to one another and to the other’s biological child.

In our day we are blessed that there have been many powerful movements of mothers working together. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (in Argentina), Four Mothers (who brought the public’s attention to the need to end Israel’s war with Lebanon), Mothers Out Front (which works on climate issues), and Mothers Against Police Brutality, to name just a few. These movements make evident the power that women can have when they work together for the sake of their biological and non-biological children.

  • How can we in 5781 ask, “What alliances are we afraid of, and what would we learn if we reexamined our assumptions about these alliances?”
  • What would it mean in 5781 if you took one or two steps to be more active with others who share your experiences? If you are a woman reading this, in what ways could you ally with other women to create change?

The third reason I can imagine that Moses, or any other man/men who wrote this story, made Sarah and Hagar jealous of each other is that he sought to explain, or even justify, ongoing enmity between the Israelites and the other peoples in the region. I imagine it was “convenient” for the Israelites to blame (or justify) their “destiny” dressed in the garb of Sarah/Hagar/Ishmael/Yitzchak,  just as it is “convenient” now for some Jews to cite this story vis a vis the Palestinian people. (It is understandable especially when place names remain the same: Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael out to Beersheba, and Beersheba is Israel’s fourth-largest city.) However, isn’t it “bone ignorant” to tell the same story over and over if it means putting yourself and your children in a never-ending state of conflict?

“What was that like for you?” is one of the most important questions I have learned to ask my children when they are angry or upset and I have the presence of mind not to impose my own feelings, but rather to remember that I am “bone-ignorant” about their experience and feelings until they tell me. When I ask this question and listen to their response, it is narrative-changing because they tell me their story and it is never the exact same as mine. Thus, I am forced to confront the impossibility of knowing their story without listening to them … and that multiple stories can and do coexist. And perhaps most importantly, it almost always helps to ease their feelings, my feelings, and if relevant, our conflict.

The same is true when the biological descendants of Sarah ask the biological descendants of Hagar the question, “What was that like for you?” As chair of Encounter I have witnessed hundreds of American and Israeli Jewish leaders from across the political spectrum taking a moment (or four days) not to impose their own narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Palestinians, but rather to listen to Palestinians tell their story of “what it is like for them.” This active questioning and listening illuminates Palestinian truths and reveals that we, the Jewish listener, can’t know the Palestinian story without listening and that multiple stories can and do coexist. And as with my own children, this opens up the possibility of a new story line. In this new story we are no longer confined to sibling rivalry and familial enmity, even if the story of old served its ancient purpose. Today we are free as mothers, as children, and as the offspring of Sarah and Hagar to create sibling harmony and to recognize that we are inextricably bound together as a family and that working together will create a better future for all of us.

  • How can we in 5781 ask ourselves what it would mean to tell the story of Jews and Palestinians today without the tale of Hagar and Sarah, Ishmael and Yitzchak as a mythic backdrop? Or if we insist on a mythic backdrop, what if Hagar and Sarah delighted in each other’s pregnancies and the fact that their child had a sibling?
  • In 5781 to whom do you need to ask, “What was that like for you?” and then listen with an open heart and open mind to their answer so that you are “less bone-ignorant”?
  • In 5781 how would we be changed and what would we do different if we added a prayer for peace between the biological descendants of Hagar and the biological descendants of Sarah? Or between Sarah and Hagar’s shared children?

Nicky Morris wrote the following about biblical stories in her poem The Stories Are in a Language I Don’t Understand, “The stories become familiar/as if they were my family/and I could speak easily/of a journey we took/or a deception my brother played.” I am grateful to know the story of Hagar and Sarah as if they are my family, yet with age I am increasingly confident that there are aspects to these family stories that have done harm to the larger Jewish family and have kept me—and us—“bone-ignorant” about women’s feelings and experiences and about the need to kill or be killed.

In 5781 I hope we are all blessed to value our own—and others’—life stories for the good of ourselves, for the Jewish community, and for all peoples.

Sally Gottesman has been a member of BJ for over 25 years.  She currently is the Chair of Encounter, an educational organization committed to informed, courageous, and resilient Jewish communal leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.   Prior to Encounter she was co-founder and Chair of Moving Traditions.  Thousands of teens across the country, including BJ teens, participate in Moving Tradition’s Rosh Hodesh and The Brotherhood programs.  She happily lives a block away from BJ with her three children, Alice, Ezra, and Charlotte.