Shabbat Lech Lecha: Moral ambiguity

November 3, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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Women play an important part in the narrative of Genesis.

And I have always been struck by the ambiguous way the Torah deals with women. On the one hand, the women are clearly subservient to their husbands. Much as we may disapprove of male chauvinism and inequality, the fact is that to this very day, thousands of years later,  such an attitude prevails in over half of the world’s population. But when it comes to the Torah there is another perspective. Time and again women play an absolutely crucial and sometimes heroic role.

According to Chapter 2 of Genesis, the partnership between husband and wife is regarded as essential. In this week’s reading, Avram and his wife Sarai are described as working together in partnership. Avram consults his wife over the delicate and politically dangerous challenge of entering, Egypt out of necessity. A pagan society where wives are tradable commodities, but family members are important allies. And similarly, the issue of a delicate balance arises when Sarai, who is barren at that stage, offers her servant Hagar as a surrogate. But then she feels humiliated when her servant tries to assert herself over her. Abram bows to her wishes, as he will do again later, very much against his instincts and inclination when Ishmael offends, and he is told in no uncertain terms to do as Sarai his wife wishes (Genesis 21:11-13).

There is a clear need to find balance in complex situations involving moral decisions that are often ambiguous and where there are challenges that face both men and women. It happens again in a different context later on in this week’s reading, over whom one should accept gifts from. Avram has no problem accepting goods, cash, and livestock from Pharaoh who was not the head of what Avram would have considered a moral regime. But when it comes to the men of Sodom, although he rescues them for Lot’s sake, he still does not want to receive any benefit from them. “I swear by God above, that I will not take one thread or shoelace or anything else from you so that you will not be able to say that I have made Avram rich”( Genesis 14:22-23).

This challenge of who to deal with or take money from, is one many of us and many charities are faced with all the time. Recently there was a huge fuss when an Oxford College was about to accept a donation from a fascist, Nazi-sympathizing family. Charities should not take tainted money. But it is not an easy moral decision to reject a gift,  particularly when poor or needy people might benefit.

In describing these moral challenges openly, the Torah is indicating that even with strict moral rules and standards, there are often no easy answers, but it tells us pretty clearly which position it thinks is the right one!

Genesis 12-17

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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