Questioning faith in the parsha
Larchmont Temple—Har Chayim
The 19th-20th Century American Jewish Adventure: History Lessons for 21st Century Jewish Life
CHEVRAH TORAH 5773
Shabbat Chayei Sarah…Genesis 24:42-67
“From all indications—statistical surveys made in the early 1990’s—American Jewry is surviving and prospering in an open society. Jews are Jewish because they prefer to remain Jewish; so they continue to blend Americanism and Jewishness. Because of the fusion of these two, they are content, if not happy; they strive to become enlightened human beings. For them, patently, the United States is still “the land of unlimited opportunity.””
[from The Jew in the American World, Prof Jacob Rader Marcus, 1996]
HOW does the choice/response of Rebecca inform the formation of Covenant?
HOW does Rebecca serve as a model for us today?
REMEZ…“Casting aside old paradigms, they transformed their faith, reinventing [American] Judaism in an attempt to make it…more meaningful, more sensitive to the concerns of the day.” [J. SARNA] V.17-18
v.47 Then I inquired of her asking, “Whose daughter are you?” And she said, “The daughter of Bethuel, son of Nahor, whom Milcah bore to him.” And I placed the ring on her nose and the bracelets on her arms.
RAMBAN… She had actually described herself as ‘the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Milcah,’ mentioning her father’s mother first [v.23-4] But the servant, observing what he thought was proper etiquette, mentioned her father’s father, Nahor. But she recounts generations through her grandmother.
v.49-51 So now, if you mean to treat my master with true chesed, tell me; and if not, tell me also, that I may turn right or left. Then Laban and Bethuel answered, “The matter stems from Adonai; we cannot speak good or bad to you. Here is Rebecca, take her and go, and let her be wife to your master’s son, as Adonai has spoken.”
S’FORNO… We cannot say anything to you to annul this decree, for the matter depends not upon our confirmation or denial.
RASHI… We cannot refuse this proposition or respond in any way, for it is obvious from your story, the matter stems from God;
it has been preordained. [cf. TALMUD, Sotah, 2a…Forty days before the formation of a child a Heavenly Voice issues forth and proclaims: the daughter of so and so shall marry so and so.]
ALSHECH… “Kach vaLech—take her and go…” They agreed to the match, seeing it had been made in heaven. Since they had
the choice, however, of sending her now or waiting for a more highly placed delegation, they said, “Take her” we agree!
Note that the relative importance of the male is subverted, for only Rebecca is referred to by name.
v.57-58 Then they said, “Let us call the girl and ask for her reply.” They called Rebecca and said to her,
“Will you go with this man?” And she said, “I will go.”
RASHI… Not simply “yes” but more; I will go—on my own, even if you do not consent. So from here we learn,
following Rebecca, that a woman may be given in marriage only be her consent. [Kiddushin, 11a]
ALSHECH… Laban and his mother suggested they leave the departure date up to Rebecca, feeling sure she’d refuse at this
point to leave home. They even asked her a loaded question, as if saying, ‘Do you really want to go with THIS man?’
They were dumbfounded when Rebecca said, “I will go.”
HaKTAV v’HaKABBALA…Had Rebecca merely responded “Eylchah” that would have merely expressed her desire. She said, rather “Eylech—I am going!” …without the letter HEH at the end. Her mind was made up; she was firm in her decision. So the Sages liken her to Abraham, ready to up & leave home.
MUNK…One must conclude that Rebecca felt herself instinctively attracted by the noble manners and goodness of Abraham’s servant,
Reflecting his master’s marvelous belief in God…This feeling awakened in her a deep echo, and she understood that in Isaac
She would find a spirit akin to her own.
ANTONELLI… Rivka’s consent to marry Isaac is not the issue…her willingness to leave her land in order to marry him, is. It indicates that matrilocal, rather than patrilocal, marriage might have been the norm in Padan-Aram. Thus Eliezer came bearing gifts…The marriage negotiations indicate the presence of matrilineal kinship systems…We saw how Rivka’s female ancestor is always named…In matrilineal kinship, a woman’s brother is part of her maternal group, but her father is not…Rivka runs to her mother’s house and her brother comes running out [v.28-29] It is to Rivka’s “brother and mother” that Eliezer gives the gifts, and it is also her
“brother and mother” who ask if she will go…Her father, interestingly, only appears to give permission for the marriage to be patrilocal….though he is absent in the morning…Rivkah, herself, was eager to go, whether her family allowed her or not !
[Genesis Rabah 60:12] Like her Great-Aunt Sarah before her, she was ready to leave her culture behind and begin a new life…
for she, too, could foresee the opportunity and the promise.
v.60 They blessed Rebecca,saying to her, “Our Sister, may you come to be thousands of myriads, may your offspring inherit the gates of its foes.”
MIZRACHI… “May you” (and no other) come to fulfill the promise of Abraham renewed on Moriah, “I will greatly increase your descendants…and your offspring shall inherit the gates of their foes.” [Gen 22:17]
v.64-5 Rebecca raised her eyes, and saw Isaac, and fell from the camel, saying: Who is that man walking in the field toward us?
RASHI… She saw that he was glorious, and seemed astounded by his presence.
B’REISHIT RABBAH… The verse could have simply said, “And she saw him,” since his name is mentioned in the previous verse.
However “And she saw Isaac” implies that she recognized something in this man which made her suspect—this is Isaac.
HIRSCH… “VaTipol”—She did not “fall” but quickly dismounted, a spontaneous decision that it would be unseemly to meet Isaac as if she were an aristocratic lady, riding towards him, while he was on foot.
D’RASH…“ In a creative process of collective self-fashioning, Jews reinterpreted their own culture
and history to fit the circumstances of American Jewish life.” [B. WENGER]
Rebecca Aaronson Brickner:
Preacher, Teacher, and Rebbetzin in Israel
By Shuly Rubin Schwartz
Barnett Brickner was one of the foremost Reform rabbis of the first part of the twentieth century. Senior rabbi of one of the most prominent congregations in the movement, he also served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Brickner was ahead of his time as one of the few Reform rabbis who championed the cause of Zionism in the interwar period. Yet little has been known of the important role that his helpmate and partner, Rebecca Aaronson Brickner, also played in shaping the course of American Jewish life.
Born and reared in Baltimore, MD, Rebecca Aaronson was one of the thirteen children. Her parents were Jewishly knowledgeable and involved, and they transmitted that love to her. Brickner attended a German-English school during the day; after school and on the Sabbath she went to the Jewish school whose principal was the young, brilliant Jewish educator Samson Benderly. Here, she developed her life-long love of Hebrew language and literature and of the land of Israel.
A member of the initial group of Benderly trainees, Rebecca studied at Columbia University with John Dewey; at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Teachers Institute, she took classes with Mordecai M. Kaplan and Israel Friedlaender. Though female, Brickner was very much part of the original group of maverick Jewish educators known as the “Benderly boys.” Barnett Brickner was also among the original “Benderly boys,” and he and Reecca met when seated next to each other in class. They were married in 1919, the year of Barnett Brickner’s ordination from the Hebrew Union College.
In 1920 the Brickners moved to Toronto, where Barnett Brickner became rabbi of the Holy Blossom Temple. Five years later they moved to Cleveland, where Barnett served as rabbi of the Euclid Avenue Temple (later called Fairmount Temple) until his death in 1958. Here, the Brickners perfected their two-person career, and the synagogue flourished under their leadership. Rebecca entertained, did pastoral work, helped found the Young People’s Congregation of the Temple, and served in the role of spiritual leader to the Temple’s Sisterhood. She gave countless invocations, talks, lessons, and speeches. Brickner also became active in Jewish organizational life in the larger Cleveland community.
From the personal correspondence between husband and wife written during times when they were part, we learn how this particular rabbinic couple worked out their partnership.
The first two excerpts date from 1927, when Barnett traveled to visit Jewish communities in Europe and Palestine and to attend the Fifteenth Zionist Congress in Basle. Rebecca’s letters to Barnett reveal her ambivalence about her helpmate role. On the one hand, though she missed him terribly, his absence gave her increased power and influence in the congregation. She met in her husband’s office to hire a new principal, Nathan Brilliant. She also engaged new teachers and prepared curricula for the coming school year. Asked to perform a wedding in his stead, Rebecca declined; she was not herself an ordained rabbi.
Saturday, July 15, 1927:
My dearest darling:
I can’t imagine that this letter is going to reach you in the land of our hopes and dreams. Even though I shall not be there with you, I eagerly look forward to the time when we will all travel there together, even our little Arthur Balfour and Joy. I hope you will not be the least bit disappointed because that is one of my hopes that I refuse to have shattered. Here is where I begin to feel sorry for myself and only a feeling that we shall travel it together makes me bear up…Those cards you have been sending to friends mean more than you will ever know. Don’t forget Dr. & Mrs….The girls in the office should hear from you again.
[Nathan] Brilliant, as I cabled you was elected at [$]5,000, to begin his work [as educational director] on Sept. 15th. If necessary we will begin our school a week later because we don’t want to start without you here. Everything will be running smoothly by the time you get back. I have engaged quite a few good teachers both for school and High School and also Hebrew. Only 2 more to get. I am mailing Brilliant the curriculum and all the school stuff for his perusal during the summer…
Kisses & Kisses
August 3, 1927:
My dearest beloved Beryl,,
Things at the Temple are very quiet right now. All those who received cards from you were flattered beyond words. Yasha Veissi & Hilda Bloch, Will Kohn’s daughter, got married today. In your absence they wanted me to perform the ceremony, but I in turn recommended Dr. Huebsch.
…Naturally I should like to be with you in Basle. If we had the money to spare I might have surprised you. I feel more and more dearly that Palestine and Palestine only is the solution. Jewish life in America is so empty. All our idealism is on the minus side. Perhaps persecution is the only thing that keeps us Jewish. I’m anxious to hear what you have to say.
….My very fondest fondest love and beautiful yearnings to you my precious.
God keep you well and unite us all in safety.
Your eternal love girl.
Five years later Rebecca Brickner took action to make her dreams a reality. She left her beloved Beryl for six months and took her children with her for her own sabbatical to Palestine.
2 May 1932.
…I had my first lesson with Livnie my Hebrew teacher today and what a teacher he is. Simply wonderful…He sat with me for two and one half hours steadily today and marveled at my thorough knowledge of Bible, Literature, and Hebrew but thinks nothing of my Ashkenazic pronunciation. …I read the morning paper with him, then Bialik’s Aggadah since I want to learn all the Midrashim and hten now I am reading Agnon [whom she earlier described as “the Hebrew modern Ilue [prodigy] and writer who is a neighbor of mine and whose works I am now reading”] and Devorah Baron, the two Iluyim in the land that everyone raves about. I am simply delighted with Agnon’s style. After I have read some more of his stuff I’ll go and call on him and tell him how much I enjoy him.
…I feel myself rejuvenated every day. Much fresher in spirit and lighter in body and keener of whatever mind I have. I love Palestine with all its lack of much that it deserves.
14 June 1932:
Since my being in the Land I accidentally came across some of the poems of Rachel, while browsing in a bookshop. I tell you Beryl that I couldn’t leave them. I practically stood in that store and read a whole volume and then she haunted me by her beauty and images of Palestine. To my great sorrow I learned that she had died last year at the age of 40, had come from Russia where at the age of 26 she became imbued with Zionism not having heard a single Hebrew word before and came on to Palestine, worked in the fields in the colonies by day and wrote poems by night. The reason I think of her is because she has a beautiful poem to Kinneret that haunted me all the while I was there. I have it and have got the music to it by now. It wasn’t until I got to Haifa and was talking to Ussishkin when he told me all about her…I have her poetry now and will tell you more about it when I see you.
Once back from Palestine, Brickner channeled her new knowledge and energy into teaching and fund raising. Her talents blossomed still further in the years following her husband’s death. Rebecca was erudite and inspirational. Her talks were continually enriched with Hebrew quotes from biblical and rabbinic sources, as well as popular citations from American literature and government. At the same time, she continually referred to the significance of the role of Jewish women both in history and in her own day.
Temple Sisterhood—Chicago—March 27, 1959
This is Sisterhood Sabbath, when we, presumably the WEAKER SEX, take over our responsibilities as JEWISH WOMEN along RELIGIOUS LINES in a worship service this evening.
This is really in keeping with the week just ending, when we celebrated the FESTIVAL of PURIM, when the heroin [sic] of the story of QUEEN ESTHER, rose at the right moment to help her people from the cruelties of the Hitler of that day, HAMAN the AGAGITE.
Her name was Esther, Her Persian name was ASHTORES, the morning star, the star that shines all through the night into the dawn of the new day, and is not extinguished until the sun rises, the Venus of the Skies, and we Jewish women can be likened to that star, that shined [sic] throughout the darkness of history, and preserved our loyalty until the dawn of our new day. The Hebrew name for Ester is Hadassah, Myrtle, the healing balm, whose mission it was and is to heal the daughter of our people and it was Hadassah who accepted HELAING as their mission even before the beginnings of Statehood. Hadassah has a very real connection with Queen Esther.
Let me go back a little in History. In 1873, about 85 years ago, A Rabbi, who was ministering in Albany, New York, was reprimanded by his Congregation because he had WOMEN singing in the choir of that Synagogue. Who ever heard of women singing in a Temple at a religious service.
That rabbi was no other than the sainted and far-visioned Isaac M. Wise, who promptly left Albany, came to Cincinnati and founded the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and thus Reform Judaism was launched, and dedicated to a liberal and progressive interpretation of our Religion.
Nowhere has the position of WOMEN IN THE SYNAGOGUE been as strong as it has been here in America.
Reform Judaism has removed her from the BALCONY, and from behind the curtains, and brought her down to an equal footing with men in every phase of our religious and educational life, even to a place on the Boards of Trustees of the congregations and today we have a woman, our immediate past President of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods acting in the capacity of President of one of the oldest and most respected Congregations in America. I am referring to Mrs. Hugo Dalshimer of Baltimore.
She did not have to take any risks for her Judaism as did Queen Esther. She came to her position as of rights, for we in Reform believe that women are not the WEAKER SEX, that the MIND HAS NO GENDER…
In 1971 Brickner was the first recipient of an honorary doctorate in Hebrew Letters from the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies, in recognition of her pivotal role in establishing that institution some twenty-five years earlier. In her response to the degree, Brickner again championed the causes she held dear, again singling out the importance of women.
December 13 1971
Dr. Goldstein, Rabbis, Teachers, Family & Friends
I am deeply moved as I stand before you, here in my spiritual home, so dear to me in gratefulness and deep appreciation for the honor you have just bestowed upon me. I shall carry this honor with humility and dignity, ever grateful to God almighty for
1) having kept me alive all these years, for
2) having opened my eyes to life’s values
3) who has endowed me with some responsibility to work for the future fulfillment of our ideals.
I feel like our own Poetess felt, when she sw the Sea of Galilee for the first time.
Is this real? Or am I dreaming?
I have been a student, a wife, a mother, a teacher, but never a doctor. I shall never be able to cure the body, but I shall continue to try and heal the Jewish Soul.
We are determined that our Survival as Jews in America must be a qualitative survival and not merely a numerical one. We are the people of the Book and we want to keep it so. We want to create a Jewish cultural environment for ourselves, for our children, for our unborn generations and above all for our country and for democracy. For Judaism and Democracy are the 2 sides of the same coin.
As Jews in America we must survive, spiritually and that we can only do through a well planned continuing system of Jewish Education, which is the life-blood of our survival. We have a long chain of tradition and we are here today, because we are a link in that chain.
We want to perpetuate something so real and so vital, yet to many so abstract and so remote. Our problem then is to survive spiritually in America and to cultivate a qualitative Jewish environment.
PROF CAROL MEYERS… In comparison with all other ‘mothers’ of the Bible,
Rebecca is a much more autonomous individual….Rebecca outshines the other matriarchs
in the way she is portrayed…She is, in actuality, equated with the foremost of the patriarchs. Because of the language, know that when Rebecca finally heads for the promised land,
she is leaving “her country…her kindred…her father’s house” just as her father-in-law did…
Similarly, Abraham’s departure was signified by LECH—go forth…This key verb appears
7 times in the Rebecca story, with the final “Kach vaLECH,” emphasizing the shift in her
life’s course, parallel that of Abraham’s. So, too, Like Abraham, through the blessing,
she is viewed as the ancestor of multitudes who will inherit the land of God’s promise… Likewise, she is the only one among the foremothers who receives an oracle directly from
God [Gen 25:23] …Why is it that Rebecca emerges so prominently?…
The clue resides in how she is positioned in the very par’shah. Chayei Sarah begins with
the death and burial of Sarah…and ends with the death and burial of Abraham in that same
place. That is, the end of the first generation of ancestors encircles this story of the second generation’s arrival.
And the representative of that generation is Rebecca, rather than her husband.
Indeed, there is no independent narrative about Isaac…Rebecca is the noteworthy member
of this ancestral pair. For the transitional link between the first father and the third father is
none other than the mother—Rebecca, supplying the vitality of lineage and strength for her day. It makes us wonder whether we ought to replace the familiar sequence, “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” with a more accurate “Abraham, Rebecca and Jacob”
…for she is the mother of a nation.