The Jewish Whistleblower

sarahsager

Meet the woman who made a feminist dream come true by putting forth a challenge.

by Cantor Sarah Sager

In the fall of 1991, during the week in which the Torah portion was Vayera, I was asked to deliver the d’var Torah at the monthly board meeting of Fairmount Temple. The central story of that portion is the Akedah, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham. It is a story that has always troubled me, that I have never heard adequately explained or rationalized, but for the purpose of my d’var Torah, I concentrated solely on the image of Abraham with raised knife against his future.

It is a horrifying image, and the more I thought about it, the more impossible it became. I had learned in grade school that this was the great test of Abraham, and that Abraham passed the test because he was willing to sacrifice his child, Isaac, to the one God that he had discovered. The image of Abraham, imbued with religious fervor and belief, is a terrifying one. I worry regularly, God forbid, that something awful might happen to one of my children. And here is Abraham willingly carrying out my most horrifying fantasy. And then it struck me: If Sarah had heard God’s command, if she had been asked to sacrifice her only child, she would have recoiled.

Sarah would have understood, instinctively, that this was not religion, but rather some kind of ecstatic deception; that a God who would demand the sacrifice of her child, even as a test, could not be her God. It was the first time I had looked at that story and that test from Sarah’s point of view—from my point of view—and I was excited about the possibility that I could bring my life’s experience, my understanding of children and family and faith, and interact with the text on a very personal level. It was exciting and compelling that Sarah could become as real to me as Abraham had always been and perhaps even more important in helping me to understand the messages of our tradition, and my relation to the past and to the future of our faith.

What to do with this realization?

I was thrilled by the insight—but really didn’t know what to do with it—when I received an invitation to address the 32nd Biennial Convention of District 3 of the Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) on the topic, “The Torah—for Reform Jewish Women”! It was a fortuitous coincidence. Had I been asked one week earlier, or possibly several weeks later, I probably would have declined, citing the overwhelming pressures of work and family needs. But when the call came, I was still intrigued and I welcomed the opportunity to pursue further the text that had opened up for me the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, the primary source of everything we believe as Jews. If I could interact with the text and become involved with it, perhaps I could share the process and that challenge with others.

I embarked upon many months of preparation and study in which I discovered that other women had similar experiences and were thinking about the Torah and Jewish ritual and practice in new and insightful ways. The problem was, that finding these materials was a haphazard process. One book or article would lead to other books and articles and I developed my own bibliography, but knew it was imperfect and incomplete. I was particularly fascinated by research being done by women scholars to change our old assumptions about the world described in the Torah. I was also captivated by the growing body of feminist commentary on the Torah and creative midrash written by women that was beginning to illuminate our ancient text in new ways.

And then it occurred to me. What we needed was a feminist commentary to the Torah; a seminal volume using the research, insights, analyses, and interpretations of the best feminist minds of our time! All of the resources were available. They had only to be accessed, coordinated, and organized. I was excited by the concept and the possibility, and recommended to District 3 of the WRJ that they should commission the first feminist commentary to the Torah!

They were energized by the idea and suggested that I speak to the national convention of the WRJ. In one of the most thrilling experiences of my life, I delivered the same message to the National Biennial Convention of the Women of Reform Judaism in October of 1993. The national organization ultimately undertook this challenge. Under the leadership of Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, editor-in-chief, and with the contributions of over 80 women scholars, rabbis, cantors, and educators, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary will be published this winter, 2007–08. It is a Jewish feminist dream come true!

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About the Author

Sarah Sager
Sarah Sager has been serving as the cantor at Fairmount Temple since 1980, and is the first person in the history of that congregation to hold the position of cantor. She was invested by the Hebrew Union College–School of Sacred Music in New York and was one of the first women in the world to hold the title of cantor. Cantor Sager graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from Brown University and also holds a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music.

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