Abraham, Sages and Women

Woman praying at Western Wall (© 2011 Shelly Lubetkin. Used by Permission)
Woman praying at Western Wall (© 2011 Shelly Lubetkin. Used by Permission)

The Hagar Problem

Early in their lives, when Abraham and Sarah were called Abram and Sarai, she worried that she was infertile and decided upon a plan in which her maidservant Hagar would lie with her husband and give him a son. Nahum Sarna claims that there was a widespread belief at that time that an infertile woman who adopted a child would become fertile.

In the Torah:

Genesis: 16:3 And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.

That last word, eesha, is usually translated as wife, or sometimes as concubine, which in biblical times was a kind of half-wife, with limited financial rights. Thus, the relationship between them is problematic, in a way that troubles the moralistic commentators of later centuries.

For example, though never proscribed, polygamy seems evil to the sages of the Talmudic and medieval epochs. The authors of Avot tell us that “the more wives, the more witchcraft”; they imply that spending a lot of time with one’s wife is a sinful waste of time, and the Amorim impose sexual obligations on scholars that would make it nearly impossible to meet one’s responsibilities to two wives.

Maimonides assures us that Abraham had no lust for Hagar, that he merely acquiesced to his wife’s instructions, taking no pleasure in the affair. (Remember also that the Rambam believes that the main benefit of circumcision is that it reduces sexual pleasure, thereby reducing the appetite for it.)

Rabbinical opinion is that Hagar was acquired as a child while Sarai was in the Pharaoh’s harem, in effect a daughter of Pharaoh, presented to Sarai as a gift or settlement for damages. And the most exotic rabbinical speculation is that Hagar was Sarai’s own daughter, fathered by the Pharaoh during her stay.

Abraham’s Wives for $500

An easy wager to win is to bet someone they cannot tell you how many sons Abraham sired. Very few will know the correct answer: Eight. Abraham had a son with Sarah, a son with Hagar, and six sons with Keturah—a name that only Bible students recognize.

After Sarah dies, Abraham marries again. Keturah, a name that suggests spice or incense, appears from nowhere. But most scholars of the Talmudic period, as expressed confidently in Genesis Rabah, argued that Hagar and Keturah are the same woman. Rashi asserts that after Hagar was expelled from Abraham’s house, she kept herself chaste, waiting for the day when she could be reunited with Abraham. She smelled so sweet to him that he changed her name to Keturah!

Talmudic Prudery

Clearly, although our patriarchs and other biblical forbearers were virile, lustful men, comfortable with having several wives and concubines, the men of the Talmud, all the way up to Maimonides, were prudish and, frankly, afraid of the power of women and sex.

In Ruth Calderon’s A Bride for One Night, a discussion of the legends about sex and marriage that appear in the Bavli, we see repeated cases in which Torah scholars on the way to the study house are so sexually inhibited and fragile that when they spy an inch or two of a woman’s ankle they are turned into wild, rapacious beasts on the spot.

It is not surprising, then, that the sages couldn’t bear the thought of a patriarch having sex with someone without marriage. They shivered at the thought of a lustful Abraham—who could not have been thinking about Torah (our patriarchs are assumed to have known the contents of the Torah before it was revealed) if he was indulging himself with a younger woman.

The image of the Jewish man in the post-biblical period is transformed from that of a virile, lustful, powerful, bellicose, and effective desert sheikh to that of a quiet, mild-mannered, skinny, myopic man of letters, all of his appetites sublimated into his study of Torah. (If you were casting the role of the Rabbi’s son in Fiddler on the Roof, what would he look like?) These men view sexual intercourse as a Torah obligation and admire those men who get the least pleasure from it. This transition parallels the reduction of the Jews to a powerless, exiled, struggling society—always in mortal danger.

But this downward curve of perceived Israelite machismo, it now appears, was U-shaped after all. Ever since the 1967 War in Israel, the perception and reputation of Jewish men—especially Israelis—has changed. Today, just about the only time we see representations of the old, weak Talmud Jews in movies and TV is when a crime is set in New York’s diamond district. More typically, we see handsome and intelligent Israeli soldiers, murderously skillful and devastatingly desirable Mossad officers, brilliant and cunning spies and international business experts.

And Israeli/Jewish women have also benefited from the transition. Consider Ziva David, the brilliant, beautiful Mossad agent who was the beating heart of the NCIS TV series for several years, or Gal Godot, the Israeli actor whose husband wears an “I’m Married to Wonder Woman” T-shirt.

Modern Jews delight in the fact that our patriarchs and heroes were real people, outsized appetites and all. Even feminist readers, who see countless cases in which our leaders-of-old abused or exploited women, would not want to paper over their actions for the sake of purifying them. No, we are free today to appreciate that Abraham was with at least three women in his lifetime, at least one other than Sarai while he was still married to her. We also appreciate that, at an exceedingly advanced age, he is said to have had the potency and drive to father son-after-son, six times. And we say: Atta boy!


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