Up until this point, the seventh session of the class using the book of Genesis to explore the concept of leadership, my role as teacher was a very easy one. The students not only participated eagerly, but vied for opportunities to speak. Moreover, they invariably had a great deal to say.
I was beginning to wonder whether there was any active part for me to play besides coordinating the discussion and making sure that each participant had "equal time." But this evening, which was devoted to the weekly Torah portion of Vayetze, proved to be very different.
It was Alex, whom you will remember as the very tall and somewhat argumentative class member, who compelled me not only to speak up, but to defend myself. More correctly, it was the patriarch Jacob whom he asked me to defend.
"I think we will all agree," he remarked, beginning the class discussion, "that anger is a negative trait and is especially harmful when it is expressed by someone in a leadership capacity. It is even more odious if the anger is directed at some helpless and vulnerable victim."
He looked around the room searching for the support of the other members of the class. He received that support unanimously. Even Hillel, sitting as usual in the rear of the room, agreed aloud: "Emotional abuse not only cannot be tolerated in a leader, but is a surefire sign that the leader is insecure."
Alex grinned in response to Hillel's encouragement. "I'm fascinated by the entire story this in week's Torah portion. The dream of the ladder ascending to heaven heralded an inspiring narrative. The guile that Jacob employed to deal with Laban felt justified to me, because it was the only effective defense against Laban's duplicity. But there was one episode that had me stymied."
Practical Priscilla intruded, albeit graciously, at this point. "I know exactly which part of the story got your goat, Alex," she said. "It is when poor, barren Rachel, driven to distraction by her sister Leah's many children, pleadingly begs Jacob, 'Give me children or I shall die.' It is Jacob's response that is shocking."
"More than shocking," asserted Alex. "It is outright abusive. Let me read the verse to you: 'Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, "Can I take the place of God, who has denied you the fruit of the womb?" ' "
Alex then continued with words that simply caught me off guard. "I don't know about the rest of you," he said. "But one of the reasons I took this course was because of our instructor's, Rabbi Weinreb's, reputation as an advocate in the Jewish community against domestic violence. Rabbi, how can you justify Jacob's treatment of Rachel? Venting angrily at the poor woman's desperate plea is domestic violence in my book."
I looked around the room, hoping that someone would come to my aid, but in vain. I found myself assuring Alex and Priscilla that they were far from the first to be irate about Jacob's insensitivity. I opened the Midrash Rabbah and read to them the poignant passage in which Holy One Blessed Be He chastises Jacob: "Is that the kind of answer you give to an oppressed woman?" The Midrash continues to describe the Divine retribution which Jacob suffered because of his callous loss of temper.
Once I had the floor, I found that I could not yield it. I slipped into my preferred role, that of the lecturer, and began to share a different take on the episode under scrutiny. "One of the commentators whom we have not yet consulted in this course is Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, or Ramban. He finds some justification in Jacob's anger. A person in dire straits, he writes, should direct her prayers to the Almighty, not to some human intercessor. By asking Jacob to give her children, she was directing her prayers to another human, a creature of flesh and blood, and not to God. This violation of the basic Jewish conception of prayer is what angered Jacob, and understandably so."
It soon turned out that I was still in the hot seat. The three women quickly united to express their dissatisfaction with my response. They lost no opportunity to defend the heroines of Genesis against male mistreatment. Carol led the attack: "With all due respect, Rabbi, to you and to Ramban, you are covering up a basic failure in Jacob's character, one which might very well disqualify him for the position of a leader. You yourself quoted the Midrash in which the Almighty recognizes that Jacob blew it."
They had succeeded in boxing me into a corner, and my feeble attempts to argue for multiple interpretations of biblical narratives were all futile. Rescue came from an unexpected quarter. It came from two women: Miriam, the student who was committed to shedding her shyness, and the female Bible teacher whose writings she was coming to know.
"You know," she began, "that I have become enamored of the works of Nechama Leibowitz, who taught Bible in Israel for many years and passed away about 15 years ago. She quotes a 15th century commentator, Isaac Arama, whose very modern approach takes Jacob's retort to an entirely different level. You all have got to hear this.
"In the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, we find two different names for woman: Isha, which represents the aspect of women which is intelligent, creative and productive, and Chava, which expresses the maternal and child rearing function of the woman.
"Jacob, teaches Rabbi Arama, rebuked Rachel for saying, 'Give me children, or I shall die.' She was limiting her feminine self-concept to the childbearing function. She is blind to the fact that she had so much else to offer the world besides bringing children into it. He was telling her, as it were, 'You won't die if you have no children. It will be unfortunate, but there is so much else that you can live for.'
"This, to me," concluded Miriam, "is not just a brilliantly original interpretation of these verses. It is a precursor to the kind of feminist perspective which I endorse. And I speak as a woman who is a mother, a Chava, but also one who is taking this course because she wants to be an Isha, a wise and effective leader of the Jewish community.
"No less of a personage than Jacob himself is making a statement that women's roles need not be limited to mothering, that women can be leaders as well as men."
I must confess that at this point, I breathed a sigh of relief. The class was now convinced that there are indeed multiple interpretations of biblical narrative. They learned that "there are seventy faces to Torah," and that each face has much to teach us about the topic under study, leadership in the Jewish community.