Parshat Breishit 5777
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parshat Breishit 5777

Shabbat Shalom.


When I was growing up, my mother was the only mother amongst my group of Jewish friends who worked. As a young child, it felt a little embarrassing to me. These were the late 50s. This was the age of “Father Knows Best”, “Leave it to Beaver”, and Donna Reed. But as I grew up, I came to not only feel okay about it, but actually to respect her for her hard work.


I never felt deprived of her time or any aspect of family life. And as I grew into my teens, I realized that because she worked, I learned certain life skills and also witnessed a father who was really good around the house, as chores were shared between us all.


By the time I was in high school years, I began to hear about a new burgeoning feminist movement, and through the years from high school through college, read some Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine and the works of other feminists. To me, they weren’t earth shattering, because I had known women’s voices. But I began to see that this was having a rather large social impact. To quote our recent Nobel laureate, the times, they were a’changing.


Women’s studies on campus became a new area of study and demands for equal rights, equal pay and breaking glass ceilings were beginning to be heard.


I want to share another recollection:

One of my closest friends was in a blended family. He had a step-sister who was the same age as we were. In 1966 it was time for our B’nai Mitzvah. His step-father was also a vice president of our shul. He did not want to see his wonderful daughter have a Bat Mitzvah on Friday night, perhaps read a section of a haftarah, and maybe recite a few prayers, but be denied the ritual access of her brother.


No, he wanted his daughter to be next to his son. As my friend would lead shachrit, so would his sister. As my friend would read from the Torah, so would his sister!


Perhaps the fact that his father was a vice president of the synagogue played a role, but the ritual committee changed the rules, and Vicki became the first girl to have a Bat Mitzvah on Shabbat morning, read from the Torah, and proudly share in leading the congregation in prayer.


And there was no turning back.


I often think about the B’not Mitzvah here. You’ve heard me speak about them. Our young women have very little appreciation for the large change they reflect. I often tell them: No girl had a Bat Mitzvah until Mordecai Kaplan (the great rabbi, Jewish educator, sociologist and philosopher) enabled his daughter Judith to have a Bat Mitzvah in 1922!


But as any older woman sitting here will tell you, it didn’t catch on until the 70s. In some more evolved communities, B’not Mitzvah began a decade or two before. But, I emphasize to our young women, one hundred years ago, you could not even vote!!! One hundred years ago, women were not considered to be citizens in this country of ours. And there were a lot of residual implications from country clubs and boards of directors and other structures of societal power.


Today we know there is a serious battle being waged around the Kotel, the “holiest site” to the Jewish people. And the battle is about the integration of men and women in prayer space. It’s a battle about women’s rights.  It is also a battle about the democratic nature of the state of Israel. And so, what has emerged is the continuance of a space where men and women can pray seperately, but to the south of that, another space that allows for the integration of men and women in prayer. Now that might be fine, but the government is dragging its feet, afraid of the political power of the orthodox rabbinate and its followers. Worse than that, now the rabbis of many of the Orthodox communities are encouraging their followers to go into the open prayer spaces and create separations between men and women…


This is not an issue of separate but equal. This is clearly a move towards the perpetuation of male dominance.


Today we have seen the expression of male dominance and the physical abuse of women in the highest places of political power. Some are rightfully outraged. Frankly, I believe we should all be outraged.


And we have seen the emergence of blogs written by women who are coming forward and telling their stories of how they have been groped and forced by men throughout their lives, in public and private places.


It is a good thing that, now, it’s out in the open. Now every young girl and woman will have the consciousness that this behavior is not alright. And this is NOT just an issue about political campaigns. This is a societal issue. This is a moral issue. It’s a human rights issue. And one that every family, every school, every religious institution should be speaking about, tracking and advocating. This is an issue that touches every one of our daughters and ourselves.


Why am I speaking about this today?


I will tell you why today.

It’s related to something very large.

And that is, we hear that one of the reasons for the discrimination against women is religion. Not only religion, but the Bible itself.


What I want to do is to begin to debunk that, and I want to debunk it by looking at the story of creation, specifically, the creation of man and woman from a critical point of view.


I posit that these texts have been used by larger social forces and have taken on meaning that is not there. They have been corrupted.


And like religion itself, powerful forces in society have taken on the social structures and used them to perpetuate their power…in this case it is about male dominance.


It’s been done with politics, it’s done in business and government and every structure of power.


So it is not religion per se that created the animosity against women, it’s the use, or better, misuses of religion that has done so.


But religion can be and must be used to recapture the higher moral ground.


In fact, religion must be used to sustain a vision of morality, what is right and wrong…what is permissible and what is forbidden.


I make a few assumptions:

  1. The ultimate value in Torah is life…U’vechartem B’chayim
  2. The penultimate value is life is freedom, and I believe that the venture of Biblical Judaism and that which has grown from it, prophetic and rabbinic, is an expression of freedom.


Beginning with the formation of our people as a redeemed slave people and continuing through the Ten Commandments and moving to this very day, human freedom and liberation is a central concern and should be our central concern.


The Torah begins today, not with the particularities of our Jewish concerns, but it makes claims about universal values. It is about the creation of humanity, men and women.


So here is where I wish to become a defender of the faith, as it were. I am going to ask you to look at the Torah, rather, think about the Torah’s description of the creation of man and woman, Adam and Eve. And I ask you…


How was the woman created? How was Eve created?

I’d venture that most of you would say: Out of the rib of Adam. We imagine some type of Divine surgeon. A little piece of the guy, his rib, is removed and then emerges a helper for him.


This is a misogynistic reading. And it is simply inaccurate.


The problem is those who do not know Hebrew are stuck with translations. And translations, by their very nature, are interpretations.


I’ve learned from a Torah teacher, Anne Lapidus Lerner, that the word for rib, tzela, is used forty times in the Bible, and this is the only time it is used as “rib.”

And then I want to look at two other words: helpmate, ezer k’negdo, and Adam…Adam or man???


In Genesis, Chapter Two it states that God caused a slumber on Adam and took one of his tzalotav, and that’s what’s translated as “rib.”


In the first chapter on the sixth day, we read a different account of the creation of the human being.


In Genesis 1:26 we read:

“Let us make an Adam in our image, according to our likeness.”

This Adam is a word used in connection to adamah…adamah is the earth, the land, the non-living element.

Adam is the human being, created in the likeness of the Divine, not male or female.


And then we read:

God created the adam, the human, in His image, in the image of God. He created it, male and female He created THEM!  That’s what the text says.


The creation of the human being simultaneously is created with male and female elements.


Maybe the original being is one we don’t really know, but out of this being will come a male and a female.


This brings me to the rib…

Because, when we try to translate a word, we need to know how that word was used in other contexts in the Bible.

Tzela is never used as a rib. The word is used forty times.

It always means side, or side room, except here it was translated a rib. But what if we have this type of dual being, one side male and one side female, and the separation creates male and female – equal, different, and apart now.


And that’s how it needs to be seen.

And this isn’t just a contemporary radical reading. Two thousand years ago the rabbis in a midrash referred to the single created being as an androgynous being.


The issue is how we translate. The bigger issue is what we want to do with it, what values we derive.


The other major text which became problematic because fundamentalists around us misunderstood its meaning is related to Eve being an “ezer k’negdo.” And it was translated as a “helpmate.” And it was understood to be an inferior being, a subservient being, a helper to the boss!


But if we look closer and more critically at ezer k’negdo we can see something else. An ezer is a helper. K’negdo literally means “As if, against him.”


So this speaks to a dimension of relationship, and it goes between any two people in real, open, honest, healthy relationship…


Sometimes we are there to help. And sometimes we are there to teach and to reflect. We reflect to “the other” on what they said, or what they did, or how they are being perceived.


This is a true relationship. This is also modeled in another relationship, because once again, if we look at the use of ezer in the Bible, 16 of the 21 times that it is used is in relation to God!

You know: “Me’eiyen yavo ezri?” the psalmist asked.

From where shall my help come?



It comes from God.

And so the ezer here is the woman. But the ezer in every relationship is each partner. Because a true and deep and meaningful relationship has a divine quality. And the capacity to be present, be of help, serve, and support is in the hands of every human being – male and female alike.

It is not a subservient help-maid, it is a holy other.


There is a lot to learn from our Bible. And it is not owned by a particular group. It is not only to be seen in the translations, often mistaken by those calling for the past to come alive.


No, we are in a new day. And there are those who push back, who expect things to be the way they are now or were in the past and think it’ll be that way again, but it won’t.

  • There are those who’ll say locker talk is acceptable talk – but too many now say “not in my locker room.”
  • Time only moves forward.

These are those with power who think they can grope and grab – not in my place, not here.


Change is taking place.

And in that change is the complete liberation of human beings. It affects this group or that group. It affects every group, and more importantly, every individual regardless of color, gender, belief or sex.


And as we move into the next period of human history, we will empower women, no, women will empower themselves and we will respect that. That’s the world we are in.


And our daughters will see their strength and never allow the perversion of their bodies, never accept the denial of their rights, always affirm their capacity to achieve, and always affirm their place as equal partners as God’s creation!

In the image of God.

He created THEM

Male and Female

Female and Male

God created THEM



Shabbat Shalom