Yom Shishi, 21 AdarI 5781
Friday, 5 March 2021
Parashat Lech L'cha 2014

1st November 2014 - Rabbi Richard Jacobi

Women stop earning this coming Tuesday!

This week’s exciting episode opens with Avram being instructed by God to go on a journey, seemingly both physical and metaphysical, that would see him beginning the Jewish people. It doesn’t seem promising – we already have been told that Sarai was barren (Gen. 11:30), and Abram is 75 years old when he begins this transformational journey.

The fourth, hyphenated, word in this six-chapter episode give us the title – Lech lecha. This is a masculine form, instructing the male to ‘go forth’ (other translations are available!).  Seemingly the covenant of the next two verses is between God and Avram alone, and Sarai is just a passenger going along with her ‘master’.  Yet, as Ruth Sohn points out in The Torah – A Women’s Commentary, the covenant will only be fulfilled through the children of Sarai, who becomes Sarah, just as Avram will become Avraham. This implies that both the man and the woman are equally important. Even this reading of the text poses problems – giving women only the role of child-bearing; excluding those who can’t or don’t have children; and why only specific women’s off-spring?

I write this piece at my home in the sixth richest (or not, depending on which measure you use) country in the world.  Yet, even here, the disparity between men and women is still worryingly great.  Only this year have all the FTSE 100 companies appointed at least one woman to their Boards of Directors and women make up only 22.8% of all directors. In terms of pay, according to The Financial Times: The gender pay gap in the UK stands at 19.7 per cent. In effect, this means that women in this country stop earning anything in relation to men on Tuesday, November 4. (FT September 18, 2014)

You, I hope, like me, will find this shocking and frustrating. Despite all the campaigns, the legislative efforts, and the court cases, the gap is actually widening! 63% of the workforce paid below the Living Wage are women, and an average women executive, according to data collected by the Chartered Management Institute, earns £10,600 less per year than her male equivalent.

With whom is the covenant made? We, in Liberal Judaism, affirm the equality of men and women in synagogue life, in religious education, and in marriage law and ritual. We need to explicitly affirm it in wider society and campaign harder for this, if Sarai is not to continue to be Avram’s passenger in our generation.

This is why Debbie Friedman wrote her song as Lechi Lach, using the feminine form to challenge the masculine dominance (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8WrShnKTWY). This is especially important in the week of Rabbi Sheila Shulman’s funeral, when we have lost a teacher and passionate advocate for feminism. The baton is in our hands – let’s fulfill the covenant for all women as well as men.