Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

LGBTQ+ rights, feminism, and Samuel. Rosh Hashana Sermon

“(2)And he had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah and the name of the second was Peninnah; and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. (5) And to Hannah he [Elkanah] would give one choice portion, for he loved Hannah, and the Lord had shut up her womb (11) And she vowed a vow, and said: to Lord of Hosts, if You will look upon the affliction of Your bondswoman, and You will remember me, and You will not forget Your bondswoman and You will give Your bondswoman a man-child, and I shall give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head. (Samuel 1:2, 1:5. 1:11)”

In our Haftarah this morning, the text from Samuel is troubling to modern sensibilities because of its references to polygamy, questionable child rearing, child abuse, patriarchy, and chauvinism. Men have for millennia interpreted and mansplained this text in an attempt to reconcile its problematic nature. The irony of my choice to read these verses as a male is not lost to me here today. The traditional sources we have were written by and for men, and anything the text has to say about these problems has rarely been called into question. Nearly fifty references exist in our traditional commentaries on Samuel 1:11 alone. Seven notes are made by Rashi, two by Comat Anakh, nine by Malbim, nine are noted in Metzudat David…. The list goes on. All avoid addressing the text’s repulsiveness. Women and moderns have something to say, and I would like to highlight some of their voices—not those of our traditional sages—and offer some of my own interpretations

An excerpt taken from John Orwell in A Feminist Companion to Samuel and Kings states, “Childbearing was a social function in ancient Israel, and fecundity, barrenness, and the loss of children were of urgent concern to men, women, and the nation.”[1] Sons were particularly important in ancient Israelite society. Naomi Steinberg, in the Journal of Childhood and Religion writes, “despite a cultural emphasis on the need for children—particularly sons to continue the patrilineage—in ancient Israel a child was property of her/his parents—and typically the father. This perspective on children stems from the ancient Israelite emphasis on the family as an economic unit”[2] Steinberg projects in her article the radical belief that this text, in particular, is centered on the parental/adult perspective. She states, “Samuel moves from being the property of his parents to being the property of the cultic shrine at Shiloh, i.e., the property of Eli the priest and YHVH the patron deity at Shiloh.”[3] Hannah’s gift of her son is economically motivated and exploitative of her child.

One way some circumnavigate the problems of the text is by virtue of the belief that the barren matriarch is a motif and it may be allegorical or serve another literary function. The barren matriarch is a motif that repeats again and again in our biblical stories. However, I find this argument still does not address the problem of the language in the text. Robert Carroll writes when referring to this argument’s relevance to Lamentations and the Daughter of Zion that these allegories of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Sodom … sound at best like the ravings of a driveling lunatic and if they were not found in the pages of ‘sacred scripture’ they would be dismissed instantly by modern readers as pornographic (un)pure and (un)simple.”[4]

Allegory or not, the impact it has on us as an audience happens to be the consequence. Steinberg introduces another feminist commentary: “1 Samuel 1:11 has been cited as evidence that a woman’s vow could stand without the consent of her husband, despite the law in Num. 30:6-8 stating that a wife’s vows are subject to her husband’s approval. The focus of feminist interpretation of 1 Samuel rests on the character of Hannah and her determination and independence in circumstances requiring that a wife bear a son to her husband.”[5]

But why do we read Samuel? Why on Rosh Hashanah? What is the relevance of this passage to me here today? The traditional response from the Gemara’s Rosh Hashanah 11a states, “On the New Year Sarah, Rachel and Hannah received annunciations,” announcements that they were to give birth. This remark actually explains all the readings in the Torah and the Prophets during Rosh Hashanah. This explanation avoids the issues we may have with the text in terms of polygamy, questionable child rearing, child abuse, patriarchy, and chauvinism. However, I would like to navigate a different avenue of thought here today.

Steinberg correctly points out that in today’s atmosphere, the story of Chana and Shmuel is one of child abuse. Parts of this narrative are relevant to us today, specifically to family planning and social services. This past year, a law known as the Nation-State Law was passed in Israel. It officially banned marriages, divorces, and conversions outside the Orthodox rabbinate. On its first day, a Conservative rabbi was dragged into jail at 5:00 a.m. for overseeing a Conservative Jewish wedding. The law also affects the LGBTQ+ community. It bans surrogacy for gay couples seeking to parent children. Chana entrusting her most precious possession (Shmuel) to Eli at Shiloh was an act every parent faces at some time. The first day of school, the first day of college, the first day of daycare.… We all must face that dreaded day. But for some in the LGBTQ+ community in Israel, their abilities to fulfill their dreams of parenting are hindered.

Samuel was born into a world plagued with polygamy, questionable child rearing, child abuse, patriarchy, and chauvinism, yet with the support of the religious establishment, he went on to become a prophet of Israel. In many ways, the argument has been made by Steinberg and others that Eli and the Temple of Shiloh served as a supportive social net that empowered Shmuel. I believe children of LGBTQ+ parents do not systematically face the challenges Shmuel faced by virtue of being born to an LGBTQ+ couple. However, surely, with society’s support, and of our religious establishment, these children can go on to accomplish anything, even becoming rabbis.

This year, we need Teshuvah more than ever. We need to repair the brokenness and the void left by this devastating law in Israel. It must be altered to not alienate Judaism. We must remember Shmuel.

[1] John Otwell, And Sarah Laughed: The Status of Woman in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), Chapter 4: ‘Woman as Mother’, p. 50.)

[2] JCR, Volume 1, Issue 3, p. 8

[3] JCR, Volume 1, Issue 3, p. 12

[4] Robert, R. Carroll, “Whorisalmin: A Tale of Three Cities as Three Sisters,” in On Reading Prophetic Texts: Gender-Specific and Related Studies in Memory of Fokkelien van Dijk-Hemmes, ed. B. Becking and M Dijkstra (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 67-8, 68. (Noted in references Maier, Christl. Daughter Zion, Mother Zion: Gender, Space, and the Sacred in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis, Minn., 2008. 251


[5] JCR, Volume 1, Issue 3, p. 10

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuel Polin is the Rabbi of Etz Chaim Congregation - Monroe Township Jewish Center on Monroe Township, New Jersey. A New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Subsequent to both of masters programs, Rabbi Polin graduated with a third Masters in Hebrew Letters and received his Semikhah (Rabbinic ordination) from the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations.
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