Joe Nalven – September 29, 2022
Rebekah’s Choice ─ Toldot
Summary[i] Toldot ─ Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Isaac prays on behalf of Rebekah for a child and it was answered. The twins in Rebekah’s womb, Jacob and Esau, struggle within her. Rebekah asks God why she is suffering. She is told that two great nations are within her and one shall be stronger than the other.
Isaac travels to Gerar with his family. Gerar was under Abimelech’s control. Isaac tells local leaders in Gerar that Rebekah is his sister, fearing he would be killed from those desiring Rebekah. Abimelech discovers the lie and berates Isaac saying, “What have you done to us? The most prominent of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” Abimelech warns his subjects, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall be put to death.” Isaac stays and thrives. The Philistines begin to envy him. Abimelech tells Isaac, “”Go away from us, for you have become much stronger than we.”
When Isaac becomes old and nearly blind, Rebekah connives with Jacob to fool her husband into believing that Jacob was Esau, thus enabling Jacob to steal Esau’s blessing. Earlier Jacob coerced Esau into giving up his birthright for a bowl of lentils.
The biblical narrative of Rebekah and the struggle of the twins within her womb raise an questions for us today: Who has control over Rebekah’s pregnancy? Is it her choice? Does the biblical prophecy take control? What about Mother Nature and the challenges of living under what might be stressful conditions? And if there had been a government at the time, would state law assume control over her pregnancy?
Beyond the question of who had control over Rebekah’s pregnancy, we might also consider whether the struggling twins were more than a watery substance – that they were persons. Here, we are drawn in two directions depending on which version of the Torah we are relying on[ii] – the Masoretic text, which became codified as the official Hebrew text during Medieval times, or the Septuagint, a much earlier translation of the Hebrew into Greek in the third century BCE.
Different understandings of the fetus can be found in the punishment for killing a mother and her fetus as discussed in Exodus 21:22-25.
“Now if two men fight and strike a pregnant woman and her child comes forth not fully formed, he shall be punished with a fine. According as the husband of the woman might impose, he shall pay with judicial assessment. But if it is fully formed, he shall pay life for life . . . ” (Emphasis added)
According to Professor Sara Ronis,
“This version of Exodus appears to distinguish between different developmental stages of the fetus, and indeed, imposes the death penalty if a brawler causes the miscarriage of a fully developed fetus. As you can imagine, this text can lead to very different readings of the question of fetal personhood. Some Jews in the ancient world, and later many Christian communities, gave ultimate authority to the version found in the Septuagint. But Jews since the medieval period have given ultimate authority to the Masoretic Text.”[iii]
It is not the intent of this commentary to pick between the Septuagint or Masoretic texts with respect to the reading of Exodus 21:22-25 or what each might imply about fetal personhood.
Rather, there is another horizon of understanding ─ one that resonates with the perspective of the Reform Jewish community. From this perspective,[iv] the issue is not one of fetal personhood since such personhood is assumed to be zero if one follows the Masoretic text; rather, the issue is one of control ─ that the woman has control over her pregnancy:
The absence of fetal personhood in Masoretic-sourced Judaism:
An unborn fetus in Jewish law is not considered a person (Heb. nefesh, lit. “soul”) until it has been born. The fetus is regarded as a part of the mother’s body and not a separate being until it begins to egress from the womb during parturition (childbirth). In fact, until forty days after conception, the fertilized egg is considered as “mere fluid.”
The focus on a woman’s control of her pregnancy:
“[Our] tradition recognizes that life does not begin at conception and the wellbeing (spiritual, emotional, and physical) of the parent takes precedence over an unborn fetus. . . . The decision negates decades of progress in the fight for women’s rights, and the recognition of women as whole and autonomous human beings. . . . [W]e will continue to fight and advocate for our Jewish values that maintain religious freedom, cherish life, dignity, and enshrine the individual’s rights to make their own reproductive choices according to their own conscience.”
A comment from local clergy succinctly states this historical perspective, augmenting control with values of freedom and justice:
“And for thousands of years, our tradition has understood that decisions regarding reproduction were ours to make. . . . [O]ur tradition’s approach to autonomy and community have long protected the right of reproductive freedom and justice.”[v]
Let us keep that intentional perspective in mind as we return to Toldot and to Rebekah’s pregnancy with her twins, Jacob and Esau.
My commentary takes a midrashic[vi] interpretive approach. This midrash asks the reader to look at Rebekah’s choice from this modern intentional perspective that informs pregnancy with a woman’s reproductive rights.
”And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to enquire of the Lord.”[vii]
As the light faded, Rebekah looked across the room. “Isaac,” she whispered, “what are you doing?” He was years older than she was and she was curious about his plans for them.
“I am speaking with YHVH, praying for help so that you may have a child. That I may have a son.”
Rebekah smiled and felt a warmth within her. She imagined their tent filled with the laughing and crying of a newborn. That was the way of life YHVH imagined for them. A new life after being expelled from Eden. Pain and joy.
Several months later, Rebekah felt kicking within her womb. It was tumultuous, far more severe than what neighboring women described. The nights and the days were fearful. She was unable to cook for Isaac or help him tend the flock or gather even a single lentil for their daily stew.
With each kick within her, she lamented, “Why am I alive?” “Why am I so?”
Rebekah decided to speak with YHVH. It was Gabrielle who came and sat with her.
“You have two boys within you. They will bring Isaac great pride. They will be leaders of great nations.”
Rebekah felt no relief, nor satisfaction knowing this future.
“I have no need for Isaac’s pride. I have no need for great nations.”
Gabrielle gently rebuked Rebekah, “But it is foretold that your descendants will be as numerous as stars in the sky. Look outside this tent. Look into the sky and behold the multitude.”
Rebekah pushed aside the prophecy, “I have no need for the stars above. I only need this struggle to cease.”
Gabrielle felt the pain that Rebekah felt. Mercy overcame the prophecy.
“What would you have me do, Rebekah?”
Rebekah squeezed out the words, knowing they would trouble Isaac, knowing they would be the dagger that Gabrielle once held back from Abraham’s hand.
“Can you remove these lives from within me?” More of a thought than a spoken wish.
Gabrielle was firm, keeping the anger without, “Yes, I can remove them, but I can only save one.”
“And where will the one you save go?”
Gabrielle’s eyes flickered as she scanned the many prophecies that threaded through eternal time, from place to place, over all the earth.
“I see Aegean farmers and their wives. There is a young woman who will give birth. I can send one of your sons to her.”
Rebekah wondered about what might become of the boy.
Gabrielle could hear Rebekah thinking about this son.
“He will have a great descendant many years away. He will be called Alexander. A conqueror.”
“And what about Isaac’s stars in the heavens?”
Gabrielle looked deep within YHVH’s prophecy to the line of Abraham.
“It will be no more. You will have a daughter. She will marry and have many children, but they will not be Abraham’s line. Isaac’s name will be extinguished. And all the stories and books about those descendants will be rewritten.”
Rebekah thought about her decision and about her power to change the future.
She thought about the pain within her.
This was her choice, not Isaac’s.
And so, the line of Hebrews was extinguished.
No Torah was handed down to light the world.
And Rebekah’s pain was removed.
Toldot, the cyclical Torah reading occurring near the beginning of the Jewish new year, resonates with the current cultural debate about control over a woman’s body and the personhood of those within her.
In Toldot, there is a divine prophecy about the future of the Jewish people from the lineage of Jacob. That divine prophecy was intimately entwined with Rebekah’s pregnancy─its inception, her experience of the struggle within her, and the future of those within her entangled with the future of entire nations.
Today, that control is not about a woman’s pregnancy in the context of Judaism’s evolution; instead, today that control is entwined with a modern Jewish intentional framework about freedom and social justice; it also is predicated on the lack of fetal personhood─the fetus lacking any cultural significance beyond that of a “mere fluid.”
Divine prophecy has been replaced as a contest over legal rights.
The contemporary issue about a woman’s control was re-ignited by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization[viii] (2022). The Dobbs decision overruled the 1973 Roe v. Wade[ix] decision that had drawn three different decision periods in a mother’s pregnancy. Dobbs returned that decision back to each of the fifty states.
The narrative in the Torah, about Rebekah and her pregnancy with Jacob and Esau, asks different questions of us than the current debate over a woman’s reproductive rights and justice. The Torah narrative takes us down the path of fetal personhood, especially if we understand the different codifications of the Hebrew Torah ─ whether as the Septuagint or Masoretic versions. The struggle of Jacob and Esau speaks to understanding what fetal personhood is─an interest that is seemingly absent in the Reform Jewish intentionality about a woman’s pregnancy.
We can put the discussion of fetal personhood to one side and instead concentrate just on a woman’s control over her pregnancy. In this more limited discussion, we would ask that if, as the midrash suggests, Rebekah was a modern 21st century Jewish woman, and if she invoked her right to control her pregnancy from the notions of freedom, justice and autonomy, and if she decided to terminate her pregnancy as her right, we would likely conclude that Judaism would not exist ─ at least not through the lineage of Jacob.
The certainty of today’s intentional framework of a woman’s reproductive freedom should ask of itself what that means for the intentional framework of the Torah. The latter is not about reproductive freedom; it is about the coherence of a Jewish community, about how Judaism is embedded in a divine prophecy.
How, we should ask ourselves, can we resolve the incompatibility about a woman’s control over her pregnancy – divine prophecy on the one hand, social justice on the other?
[i] This summary draws on MyJewishLeaning.com and Chabad.org.
[ii] Sara Ronis, Ketubot 35. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ketubot-35/
[iv] San Diego Jewish Communal Leaders Response to Roe V. Wade, June 27, 2022. https://cdn.fedweb.org/fed-28/2/San%2520Diego%2520Jewish%2520Communal%2520Leaders%2520Response%2520to%2520Roe%2520V%2520Wade%2520v6%25281%2529.pdf
[v] A Message from Beth Israel Rabbis, June 2022, https://hi-in.facebook.com/bethisraelsd/photos/a.460648176355/10158704435801356/
[vi] Midrashim are stories built around Jewish themes, often arising from verses in the Torah and valued as a practice of biblical exegesis. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midrash ; see also, discussion of midrash aggadah, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/midrash-101/
[vii] Genesis 25:22
[viii] Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 597 U.S. (more) 2022 WL 2276808.
[ix] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113.