In biblical tradition, the Jewish woman’s status was determined by her fertility. Her importance and value in the familial and communal setting was inexorably tied to her child-bearing potential. The barren woman was considered second-class in society and inferior to the other wives in her immediate family who did have children. When God finally remembers Rachel and opens her womb, she asserts “God has taken away my disgrace” (Gen. 30:23).
Consider our matriarch Sarah. She is so desperate for a child that she gives her maid Hagar to her husband Abraham so that she could adopt the child and claim him as hers. Her inferiority is emphasized by the dramatic change of statuses in the household. Hagar, the Egyptian servant, after becoming pregnant, dominates and dares belittle Sarah, her master, for her inability to conceive, “and when she [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.” Hagar now demands more respect without suffering any consequences. Sarah’s image as a less significant entity in the family setting is expressed by Rashi, who says that Sarah’s story “teaches that whoever has no children is not built up but demolished.” (Rashi on Gen. 16:2).
A similar situation occurs in Elkanah’s household. Pnina aggravates and mocks Hannah for not being able to bear children: “And her rival vexed her sore, to make her fret, because God had shut up her womb” (Samuel I 1:6).
In addition to a social indicator, the biblical narrative views barrenness as a form of punishment and the ability to procreate as a reward. When King David’s wife, Michal, degrades him in her heart, she was punished with infertility: “And Michal, the daughter of Saul, didn’t have a child until the day she died” (Samuel II 6:23).
This theme is very common in the books of the prophets. Isaiah, for example, says: “'Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor!” (Isaiah 54:4). Isaiah tells Israel that God can reverse her life of futility and bring fruitfulness. He uses it as a symbol for redemption.
A very dramatic scene takes place when “Rachel saw that she wasn’t bearing Jacob children and she was jealous of her sister, she said to Jacob: Give me children, and if not, I am dead!” (Gen. 30:1). Rachel’s pain is obvious. She considered her life meaningless and worthless. She is as good as dead. And again, Rashi highlights this theme by saying: “From here [we learn] that whoever has no children is counted as dead.”
I would like to take issue with this traditional idea of fertility as a measuring stick for a woman’s worth. As we described, a barren women felt and was made to feel “broken” and “dead.” But a careful analysis shows that this is not the only, or even the most obvious interpretation of the biblical narrative.
Let’s consider Jacob’s reply to Rachel’s demand to “give” her children. She demanded him to take action, to do something to change the situation. His response was extremely harsh: “Jacob’s anger flared up at Rachel, and he said: Am I instead of God who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?” (Gen. 30:2). Jacob doesn’t accept her tone of reproach towards him. More importantly, Jacob might not be accepting her self-image as worthless and as dead.
This reading of Jacob’s response is fully in line with a less mother-centric interpretation of the bible.
In the story of Creation, (Genesis 5:1, 2), the Torah emphasizes the equality of male and female: “On the day that God created Man, in the likeness of God He created him. Male and female He created them, and He blessed them, and He named them Man (Adam) on the day they were created.”
He named them Man. They are the same; they hold the same value. They were both created in God’s image, they were both blessed to be fruitful (P’ru U’revu), both were given the capacity to rule over the animals, and they were both given the task to bring glory to God’s name. They were created equal in every respect.
However, the woman was given two additional names which were unique to her.As the Torah states, “This shall be called a woman” (Gen. 2:23). She was named Isha, a woman, to reflect the fact that she was created from Ish – a man. If the name Adam – Man – reflects that both man and woman are the same species, then the two names, Ish and Isha, state only a gender difference; in meaning and syntax they are the same. Isha is another way of saying ‘a person’ who happens to be a female. The primary role of a woman is to be a person, a human being, not intrinsically more or less valuable than a man.
The role of a woman as a mother is only emphasized by her third name, Chava, which means “em kol chai” – mother of all living (3:20). Chava was the first mother and the mother of all humanity that descended from her. We have to remember that this name was given to Chava, (Eve) only after her sin of eating from the forbidden fruit. Originally, she was not assigned the task of bearing children. The role of being a mother was not her original primary function.
Women are prone to being mothers and nurturing their offspring. But it’s not all about motherhood. A woman’s existence is not defined by her ability or wish to have children. She is first and foremost a fully-valued human being, she is first Adam and Isha, regardless of her unique ability to give birth and raise children.
Rachel reflected her emotions, but not the reality; no one is dead just because she has no children!
Many great women in the bible are not necessarily mothers. Miriam, the leader of the women in the desert, Rahab the spy, Deborah the warrior and judge, Yael who killed the enemy’s general, Wise Abigail, Queen Esther, and others.
On Mother’s day, when we celebrate motherhood and acknowledge the love and sacrifice of the mothers in our lives, we should also remember that a woman is not only a mother; she is firstly a human being.