I heard an online shiur given by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg entitled, Vayeira: Sarah Was in the Tent, Does That Make Her a Feminine Failure? (relevant section at 20 -23-minute mark), wherein the Rabbi poses a question to the contemporary orthodox woman and community on how they would view Sarah Imeinu, while attacking an organization that is currently on a speaking tour to address difficulties and challenges that exist within our communities.
He asks, “Would they see Sarah as a failure or role model? Is Sarah a hero or a villain? Would we need to liberate Sarah from the persecution of men who forced her into the tent or is it possible she chose a specific role, understood her place, and does not need to be recognized and applauded by all? Would they view Sarah as a failure because she remained baohel (in the tent) or would she remain imeinu (our mother)? Would they see Sarah as a failure or role model, hero or villain?”
This is not an either/or situation. Positing that either Sarah is the exemplar of Jewish womanhood or deem her as a failure or a villain is creating a false dichotomy.
The Rabbi further creates a strawman (or in this case straw-woman) by impugning the motives of Orthodox women who take a public stance by stating that ”We don’t evaluate meaning and purpose and significance by the public role that we play.” This is indeed an important point but one that would apply equally to men and women and something that everyone would agree with.
The Rabbi continues to ask whether is it possible that Sarah chose her role? To which I say indeed, it is possible she chose the role of being in the tent and it is possible that Avraham loved her sense of modesty in the way Rashi explains the word “baohel” (she was in the tent). But what of Yaakov’s falling in love with Rachel when he found her drawing water from the well, the most public spot in town? Not to mention that the well was also where Eliezer found Rivkah, who was God sent as the perfect match for Yitzchak! Just as our Avot are all unique and have varying traits from which we have much to learn, so too our Imahot.
And so I answer no, Sarah is not be seen as a failure by contemporary women because contemporary women do not believe that everyone must fit one mold. Contemporary modern orthodox women believe that each person, male or female, has a God-given neshama and a unique purpose that only he or she can accomplish. For Sarah, it might have been fulfilled from within her tent but clearly, for other great female Jewish role models like Miriam and Devorah, it was not. They held public positions and God loved them and entrusted them as leaders of our people. It is disgraceful to ascribe nefarious motives to any woman who feels her calling is to do God’s work that happens to entail being in the public eye.
In addition, his attack on Chochmat Nashim, the organization he refers to, hampers their efforts in not only protecting and promoting the Devorah’s and Miriam’s of our day but also the Sarah Imeinu’s among us. Chochmat Nashim works to secure the future of all women specifically when they are not getting proper medical care due to a false sense of modesty, or a divorce when their mental or physical well being is threatened or denied any other basic right that should be granted not only because they are a sacred individual but also a valued member of Klal Yisrael.