Rarely do women make up the main characters of a Torah and Haftara portion. On the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, our Torah portion focuses on our matriarch Sara’s struggle with infertility, and similarly, the Haftara tells the story of Hanna who cries her heart out to God for a son. Both these women are described as righteous and the Talmud in Rosh Hashanah 10b;10 describes God having remembered them, so they both conceived. Pain, distress, and shouting for God’s mercy, help, and closeness are the main themes of the readings and make up the parallel to how the Jewish people feel on Rosh Hashanah. Famously, the sound of the shofar emanates our cry for God.
This holiday symbolizes answered prayers and acknowledged pleas, yet when I look around my Orthodox community, I see women suffering in silence, and their cries ignored. As I write this blog post my heart aches as I think of agunot, of women chained in their marriages with no way out of them, and rabbinic leadership neglecting their abuse. Survivors of sexual violence at the hands of Jewish leadership – be it rabbis, teachers, or men in positions of power in Jewish organizations, are silenced and shamed away from speaking out. The taboo around the topic of sexual assault results in shame and guilt for the survivors and the burden of it is carried out by them. They are being made to fear consequences that they should never have to face for raising their voices against their abusers. Women who had abortions are made to hide that fact due to the humiliation that comes with it. These women carry their pain and suffering alone, not daring to speak a word of it. Women are made to feel invisible by the community, and their cries are silent, just like Hanna’s.
God remembered Hanna and Sara and answered their prayers, yet we don’t seem to remember these women. We may not want to remember them. It’s easier to push the women away, shame them into silence, and pretend that the issues don’t exist. But they do exist, and women deserve to be seen, heard, and redeemed. We are in charge of our communities, we decide how we handle cases of sexual assault and agunot. Next year, and every year afterwards we can choose whether or not we will look the other way when we see abuse.
I wish us all a year in which women can quit suffering in silence and raise their voices. A year in which we become painfully aware of the reality of what these women go through and are made uncomfortable by it. I wish us strength to sit in the uncomfortableness, to face ourselves and the women whom we are failing. May this be a year of justice, joy, and redemption. And may we understand that when women suffer, we all, and our futures, suffer as well.