My youth was spent at the second-largest Conservative synagogue in the United States, the imposing and important Temple-on-the-Heights in Cleveland, Ohio. At my bar mitzvah, I chanted a double Torah portion, Nitzavim and Vayeilech, in addition to a lengthy Haftarah portion. However, the girls in my Hebrew school class, IF their parents insisted, were permitted to become a bat mitzvah on Friday nights when the Torah is not chanted (they were forbidden to do so) and instead were “allowed” to chant a small section from the Haftarah or from the Song of Songs.
The primary focus of my Hebrew school education was to master reading the prayers in Hebrew; each week we would be tested for fluency and speed and then seated, row by row and chair by chair, according to our performance, i.e. top performance was seated in the first chair and so on and so on. Usually, the first 3 chairs were occupied by Moshe (Marc) Gutin, Tzivayah (Carol) Stern (yes, I remember both their English and Hebrew names), and me. On weeks when they were seated ahead of me, my brother would taunt me by following me around, repeatedly singing their names, “Tzivyah Stern and Gutin! Tzivyah Stern and Gutin!” I remember feeling shame when I attended Carol’s (Tzivyah) Friday night bat mitzvah. I knew she was at least, if not greater, my equal in Hebrew fluency, but wouldn’t, couldn’t chant from the Torah.
In this week’s rich portion, Chayei Sarah, “the life of Sarah,” we learn that Sarah lived 127 years and then, she died. Abraham embarks on detailed burial arrangements. We learn of how Rebecca became Isaac’s wife. There is detail in Abraham’s mourning of Sarah. The “life of Sarah” lives on in her legacy, in Isaac, and in us, her descendants, the Jewish people. We never actually “hear” Sarah’s voice or her own words.
During my first year at The Hebrew Union College School of Sacred Music in New York, I attended a seminar on liturgy with a focus on the use of feminine images of God. The first exercise completely changed my perspective. We were asked to choose any prayer from the Shabbat morning liturgy, read it aloud, and exchange the male pronoun ‘He’ with ‘She’ each time it occurred. If we chose the Amidah we were to replace the names of the patriarchs with the names of the matriarchs. Keep in mind the names of the matriarchs had yet to be included even in the Reform liturgy. I chose the first blessing of the Amidah and when I said aloud the words “God of Sarah,” I was transformed. My mother’s name was Sara. I felt a loving and caring warmth envelop me. In that moment, the long-established wall of male God imagery crumbled and was replaced with new images and emotions connecting to my mother and grandmother. It opened a wonderful new world of prayer for me. The importance of the unlimited inclusion of women, in every aspect of Jewish life, cannot be overstated.
May our historic Matriarch Sarah rest in eternal peace. I’m comforted knowing my mother, Sara, does.