Hannah rose after eating and drinking at Shiloh while Eli the priest was sitting at the entrance to God’s sanctuary, Her spirit was greatly pained and she prayed to God, weeping profusely. . . . As she continued praying to God, Eli watched her mouth. Now Hannah, she spoke in her heart; her lips moved, but she uttered no sound; and Eli took her for a drunkard. Eli said to her, “How long will you go on behaving like a drunkard! Put away your wine!” Then Hannah replied, saying, “No, my lord, I am a woman in anguish, and I have had neither wine nor liquor, but have been pouring my heart out before God. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking all this time out of the greatness of my concern and out of my vexation. (1 Samuel 1:9-10, 12-16).
“Hannah replied, saying, ‘No, my lord.’” Some say that she said to him: “You are no person of authority, nor is the Shekhinah or the Spirit-of-Holiness with you, since you have presumed me guilty rather than innocent. Are you not aware that I am a woman on anguish? (Talmud, B’rakhot 31b).
Hannah eventually became mother to one of the great prophets of the bible, Samuel. At first, though, the Bible deems her a person of holiness and integrity, but someone plagued by suffering and distress. She could not conceive and dearly wanted a baby. Her co-wife did have children. Her husband was clueless and could not understand her pain. And Eli, a priest, a man of God, a holy figure supposed to have deep insight into the human condition, could not recognize a woman in need. Instead, he questions her integrity and accuses her of indecency.
Sadly, some stories never change. In our community we have worked so hard to fight for marginalized communities: immigrants, racial minorities, LGBTQ, the poor. And yet, we often overlook the still-existent marginalization of women. Recent events around Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, and others in powerful places have only highlighted that which so many in our own Temple community face: harassment and sexism, sometimes overtly, sometimes so subtly that one only notices that it happened after the fact. Women in our community have and continue to face violence at home. Women in our community are affected by the government’s attack on reproductive rights. Women in our community continue to be attacked by those of us who still hold power in many circumstances and relationships— men. And, for millenia, Jewish women have faced a Judaism that was interpreted and developed by the rabbis, who were most definitely men, often unaware and uninterested in the needs of more than half the Jewish population. It is only over the past half-century that a solid Jewish feminist movement has taken hold, reinserting women and their stories into our sacred narratives, and rebuilding prayers and rituals to better address the experiences and needs of all in the room, including women.
We are reminded at times like this that Feminism only works if all of us, and particularly those of us in positions of power, regularly work to ensure equality, fairness, and dignity for all those in our midst. In the first account of Creation, God created human-kind, male and female, in God’s image. May there be a day where Hannah’s experience stops being so awfully familiar, where we recognize and honor all human beings for exactly who they are— glimpses of God.
Published in the November 2017 issue of Temple Emanu-El’s Kolaynu newsletter.