Don’t use ‘Handmaids’ to Bash the Hebrew Bible

The potential overturning of Roe V. Wade has given rise to a great deal of discussion regarding “handmaids”-the phrase made popular by author Margaret Atwood in her novel “A Handmaid’s Tale” and the subsequent television series. Many who are outraged by the apparent Supreme Court action are arguing that there are those on the extreme right that wish to turn women into “handmaids”-vessels for childbirth and nothing more. The other day, I heard a former prominent Republican official, now an MSNBC contributor, make the astonishing claim during a broadcast that the “handmaid” is an “Old Testament” institution embraced by extremist conservatives as opposed to the more progressive “New Testament” views shared by those on the left. This is nothing more than an old antisemitic trope-the idea that the “Old Testament” is a corpus of harsh laws while the “New Testament” is a book of love and forgiveness. This is rooted in the idea of “supersessionism”, the notion that Christianity, a religion of love, arose to replace Judaism, a religion bound by harsh legal strictures. This is nothing more than an ancient, and ultimately deadly, antisemitic canard.

The fact is that the use of surrogate mothers to provide children for an infertile couple does appear in the Hebrew Bible, but it is hardly held out as an example to emulate or as a practice for all time. Notably, it appears twice in the book of Genesis-first in the story of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 16) and the story of Jacob and his wives (Genesis 29). Even a cursory examination of these stories shows that the institution of using a woman as a surrogate mother emerges from the agonizing pain of the seemingly infertile wife and is an act of desperation, not as a matter of course and accepted practice. Further, the pregnancy of the surrogate mother leads not to happiness and joy, but inevitably to pain, jealousy, sorrow and strife.  Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is surrogate motherhood, “handmaids”, if you will, held out as an example to emulate and celebrate-it is certainly not an “Old Testament” institution any more than Abraham calling his wife Sarah his “sister” (Genesis 12) a practice venerated by the Hebrew Bible.

Indeed, in one of the noteworthy departures from the use of a surrogate “handmaid”, Isaac prays on behalf of his infertile wife, Rebecca, and she conceives and gives birth. (Genesis 25) The ancient sages see this act of prayer by Isaac as noteworthy and as an example of profound love.

If the Christian right has indeed adopted the notion of the “handmaid” as praiseworthy (or even if it is just in the literary mind of Margaret Atwood that they do) this idea has no bearing in actual Hebrew Biblical literature, and to say otherwise is nothing but rank antisemitism and an old antisemitic trope.

About the Author
Rabbi Douglas Sagal is currently Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel, Rumson NJ. He has served congregations in Connecticut, Chicago, and New Jersey. He is a past president of the New Jersey Association of Reform Rabbis. Rabbi Sagal is a graduate of Wesleyan University, Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, Yale Divinity School, and is a Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute.
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