One hundred years after the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, 55 years after the Voting Rights Act codified voting protections for Black Americans, and 52 years since Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to Congress on November 5, 1968, Senator Kamala Harris — one of only two Black women ever elected to the U.S. Senate — became the very first woman of color to become the Vice-President Elect.
Senator Harris’ election is historic, and her diverse background and biography represents an America that has always been part of the fabric of this country, but reflects so many more of us than ever before. Her experience as a lawyer, Attorney General of California, and a sitting senator on some of the most important congressional committees, has meant that her leadership needed to be multifaceted and complex in order to make a difference in both local and national issues.
I watched Senator Harris take the stage Sunday night, and became emotional hearing her say that while she may be the first woman to hold the office of Vice-President, (as well as the first Black and South Asian woman to do so) she won’t be the last. I was born the year Shirley Chisholm took office, and was ordained as a rabbi in the first 25 years of the ordination of women rabbis, so celebrating the ascension of women in a field dominated by men is not new to me; but I am newly appreciative of what it means to have something happen in my lifetime.
There is not enough proverbial ink to concisely recount the challenges women have faced in this country on the way to this election, nor is there a finite number of women who have fought, and continue to fight, against discrimination on the basis of sex, and in favor of equal rights under the law. Stories of women overcoming obstacles are more numerous than the women who tell them, because any woman who has tried and succeeded to make a name for herself in a male dominated field has often endured years of challenges without saying a word. It is not newsworthy to say this, of course, nor is it a hiddush (something new) to point out that the sacred stories of the Torah contain a paucity of strong female characters whose actions determine the course of Jewish biblical history.
It is certainly difficult for young Jewish women to find role models in the Torah, as they are few and far between, despite a handful of powerful and meaningful, exemplary roles. Biblical personalities like Sarah, Miriam, Deborah and Esther, as examples, served as supreme religious leaders – matriarchal, visionary, judicial, and heroic. And though the moral arc of the universe is long, when it comes to the ongoing emergence of women leaders, it continues to bend toward justice and inclusion.
In this week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, we are introduced to perhaps the most fully developed female character of all, Rebecca. As a woman and as the matriarch she becomes, Rebecca’s example is a powerful one that defies most stereotypic images for Jewish women, in the bible and since.
Rebecca is not a one-dimensional character, she has power and imagination, and the Torah brings her actions to light for us to see a woman of action, decisiveness, strength, and beauty. The text described her in traditional terms: she is beautiful (Gen. 24:16), she is modest (24:65), and we later learn has her own relationship with God (25:22). At the same time, Rebecca is a confident woman, willing to assert herself and use the power available to her. She willingly goes with Abraham’s servant Eliezer to Canaan, she suffers from infertility – the plight of most women of consequence in the Torah – and she later orchestrates her son Jacob’s acquisition of the blessing from Isaac, using her insight to protect the covenant.
Rebecca is depicted as forthright and manipulative, loving and discriminating. The Women’s Torah Commentary describes her as a woman who refuses to leave fate – her own and that of her loved ones – to others, even to God. These same qualities might be attached to contemporary women in the political sphere today. To reach the highest elected offices in the United States, you need clarity of vision and the determination to shape and direct forward movement for the community you serve, which of course is not gender specific, but one look at the American men who have ascended the ranks of political office might indicate otherwise.
At the same time, the tropes that depict a strong, ambitious woman in misogynistic terms in America in 2020 are alive and well, and Senator Harris has had to contend with name calling and raw personal attacks, having nothing to do with her record of public service. The multifaceted leadership she exhibits and what is needed to impact deep systemic change in this country may not land exactly right every time. But across the country, in every area of government there are women who serve their community and their country in a myriad of roles. They are strong leaders and thinkers who make political, religious, professional, parental, and relational choices that may be bold and innovative, expected and comfortable, or transformative and redemptive. The character of Rebecca can be held up as an important model because her choices for herself and others similarly carried the clarity and compassion needed to move the entire biblical enterprise forward.
Rebecca’s self-confident example of dynamic initiative and direct appeal to gain what is most important is a timely reminder of what has been achieved, and what we still are working to accomplish. As we anticipate Senator Harris’ swearing in ceremony as the Vice President, we can well appreciate the strong and broad shoulders on which she stands, and the example she sets for this generation that pursuit of one’s dreams and a commitment to the value of everyone’s dignity reflects the legacies of every woman of agency and independence from biblical times until today.