Women and the Covenant

How women figure into the male-oriented covenant that begins with Abraham and circumcision.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Is Sarah part of the b'rit (the covenant) that God establishes with Abraham? While our impulse might well be: "How can you ask such a question? Of course Sarah was part of the covenant," the details of the text force the question upon us. From the opening words calling Abraham to leave his homeland, and throughout this parashah, God speaks directly with Abraham, not with Sarah. Most dramatically, the sign of the b'rit in Genesis 17 is circumcision, clearly a male-only ritual.
The Torah a Women's Commentary
One could argue that this ritual established a covenant only between God and Abraham, and Abraham's male descendants, and that women stood outsidethis religious cult altogether. Perhaps Sarah and the other matriarchs had their own religious practices and traditions, their own way of relating to God. Or, perhaps, they were passive members of this covenant between God and the men, valued as child-bearers, but otherwise on the periphery.

Let us consider another way to read the text. The critical element of the b'rit is the promise that Abraham will be fruitful and become the father of nations. Women's role as child bearers is therefore not ancillary but central to meaning of the covenant. And, while God does not address Sarah directly in Genesis 17, God refers to her and changes Sarah's name just like Abraham's--with the addition of the letter heh and with a parallel explanation: "she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her" (17:16).

Even when Abraham doubts Sarah's ability to bear children and suggests that God's covenant continue through Ishmael, God reassures him that the covenant will pass through Sarah's son, Isaac. Thus, God makes it clear that not all of Abraham's descendants are part of this covenant, only the ones of Sarah. This underscores Sarah's crucial role; it makes Sarah and Abraham, physically speaking, equal partners in the covenant.

The Female Alternative to Circumcision

In a sense, the greatest "sign" of this covenant is the fulfillment of God's promise that Sarah will bear a child. Sarah's pregnancy and Isaac's birth are tangible proof that God fulfills promises--and will similarly fulfill the other promises. Perhaps women after Sarah, as the ones bearing life, carryon the covenant between God and Abraham and Sarah's descendants in the most basic, physical way. Maybe circumcision is a male ritual to include men in a physical way in the covenant that women make real in their flesh when they bear the next generation.

This view has its own problems. Women of every nation bear children; how can childbearing be an essential characteristic or sign of a particular covenant? And what about women who will not bear children? Are they excluded from the covenant?

We need to look further. Scholars such as Savina Teubal argue that the world described in the Torah was preceded by a matriarchal system in which women held significant power, perhaps as priestesses. The decisive role of the matriarchs in determining the transmission of this male covenant (through Isaac and later Jacob) might be a trace from a time of greater female power (Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis, 1984). Such intriguing possibilities open up different ways of understanding the Torah and our earliest history.

But regardless of its origins, Jews today understand the b'rit to include boys and girls, men and women. Numerous rituals have evolved to welcome baby girls into the covenant. Today, many Jews would not consider not having a brit bat ritual to welcome their daughter into the covenant. In some communities, a particular ritual provides the norm. In others, parents decide on the ritual, often together with the rabbi.

The Foot Washing Ceremony

One covenant ceremony for girls is a simple foot washing ritual often referred to as B'rit R'chitzah (the Covenant of Washing) or B'rit N'tilat Raglayim (the Covenant of Washing Feet). This ritual was first imagined into being by a small group of female rabbis and rabbinical students I participated in, at a retreat in Princeton in 1981. Eventually, this group crafted a ritual that continues to be used by individuals and communities in the United States, Israel, and other countries.

This idea--of washing a baby girl's feet to welcome her into the covenant between the Jewish people and God--grew out of our reading of Genesis 17-18. Immediately after the covenant in Genesis 17, when Abraham is circumcised, Abraham invites three visitors passing by for a meal (18:1-15). He washes their feet, a sign of welcome in his own day. Abraham's guests, who prove to be God's messengers, announce the future birth of Isaac.

Abraham's act of washing his guests' feet, as a sign of welcome, therefore, is closely associated with the original establishment of the b'rit in Genesis 17. Washing the baby's feet allows us to introduce water into the ritual, and to make the association with Miriam's Well, mikveh (ritual bath), and the healing, nurturing power of its mayim chayim (fresh water, literally "living waters"). The ritual includes readings and music that bring out these motifs and involves the parents as well. Usually the formal naming of the baby follows, with blessings over wine, as at a male circumcision. This ritual, simple and gentle, lends itself to individual adaptation and creativity (see "The Covenant of Washing: A Ceremony to Welcome Girls Into the Covenant of Israel," Menorah, IV/3-4 May 1983).

Was Sarah part of the covenant? For centuries, Jews have looked to Sarah as the first of our foremothers, women's tekhines (petitionary prayers) have called upon the God of Sarah, and pleaded in Sarah's name on women's behalf. As the covenant continues to be fulfilled by the commitment of every new generation of Jews, the impassioned voices of Jewish women bring forth Sarah's voice in our own time, with new clarity. Today we can celebrate a rediscovered Sarah the mother of the covenant we the Jewish people share with God.

Even if b'rit bat rituals have not always been part of Jewish tradition, they are so today. Mothers who were welcomed into the covenant with such ceremonies now perform these same rituals with their own babies. Generations from now, Jews may be surprised to learn that baby girls were not always welcomed into the covenant with a ritual b'rit bat. As contemporary men and women today, we can look forward to seeing such rituals flourish and evolve in the years ahead.

The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.

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Rabbi Ruth H. Sohn is the director of the Leona Aronoff Rabbinic Mentoring Program and Rabbi of the Beit Midrash at Hebrew Union College in LA. She also teaches adults in a variety of venues in Los Angeles.