Yom Shishi, 21 AdarI 5781
Friday, 5 March 2021
Parashat Vayera 2011

Parashat Vayera by Rabbi Anna Gerrard
11 November 2011

“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, ‘Abraham,’ and he answered, ‘Here I am’.”  (Genesis 22:1)

This weekend, the London Symphony Orchestra celebrated the 600th birthday of Joan of Arc with a series of events and concerts.  I was invited to take part in a panel, entitled ‘Women in the Church’ and addressing issues such as female religious leadership, women in traditionally male roles, Joan of Arc as a source of inspiration and the issues around women’s professional clothing.

Like Abraham, Joan of Arc believed she was instructed by and tested by God to carry out acts that were violent and sometimes ethically questionable.  And like Abraham, she is revered for her complete faith in God.  I would therefore like to share with you my contribution to the panel as a commentary on this week’s Torah portion.

Coming from a very different tradition, to what extent do I   find the story of Joan of Arc inspiring as a female religious leader?

I am going to follow Jewish tradition by giving two contrasting responses to the question.  On the one hand, I am inspired by the idea of a figure, and a female figure at that, who had such utter conviction in her faith.  Joan of Arc, like many Christians whom I meet today, had a sense of faith and piety to which I could only ever aspire.

When I have attended Christian prayer services, I have often been struck by a solid and profound sense of faith.  So to imagine the life of a woman like Joan of Arc who was not afraid to speak from the very core of her faith, who was prepared to risk her own life by declaring that her very existence was destined by God, fills me with a sense of awe and a tinge of envy.

As a Jewish religious leader, particularly as a Liberal Jewish leader, faith is quite a small part of our engagement with the Jewish community.  On both a personal and a professional level, faith has an equal place alongside culture, identity, experience, heritage and learning.  As a Liberal Rabbi, it can sometimes seem that the greatest taboo when writing a sermon is to talk about God!

On the other hand, I am disturbed by the element of religious fanaticism in Joan's story.  As a Liberal Jew, my theology is pluralist, accepting the validity and spiritual integrity of other faiths, and my God is not a personal God who assigns our fate but a higher spiritual presence that inspires us to become better people by striving to emulate our own concept of the divine.

The use of religion to justify military action, while I recognise that it has been a part of my own religion as much as any other, is something that I cannot comprehend or accept.  Any kind of fundamentalism or religious belief that blinds us to the human reality of the situation or to the human dignity of the other has no place in my own religious worldview.

Of course I am inspired by Joan's courage to fight for her rights as a woman in a patriarchal society.  I have to continually remind myself how privileged I am to belong to a Jewish movement that has had female religious leaders for nearly forty years.  As a young woman entering the Rabbinate in the 21stcentury, my gender has never been an issue and I owe that to the pioneering women who came before me.

Together with the women who fought to be Rabbis in the 70s, together with Jewish women throughout history who fought for their right to a full Jewish education and an equal place in communal life, Christian figures such as Joan of Arc are part of the heritage that allows me to be where I am today without having to put up a fight.