Our Patriarchy Without Men: Commentary on Parashat Toledot 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President & Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary

The Hebrew Bible features the stories of at least six women who could not get pregnant and, only due to divine intervention, finally gave birth—Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah, the woman who eventually gave birth to Samson, and a certain Shunammite woman whose child would not only be born but also brought back to life.[1] But before each miracle came the struggle. Couples today who have faced infertility know that the inability to get pregnant could stem from an aspiring parent of any gender. Our Scriptures narrated these tales almost as if some imperfection about these women were the sole cause of childlessness. Later generations among our sages would later wonder though: Could the challenges have been rooted in the men in these stories?

The scribes who authored this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (תּוֹלְדוֹת), made very ambiguous whether Rebecca was unable to bear children or Isaac was impotent. The Hebrew text that tries to identify the root of this couple’s fertility problems is standardly vocalized today as “עֲקָרָ֖ה הִ֑וא” (akarah hi, “she was barren”).[2] Hebrew however is a language originally written only with consonants;[3] the vowels in our text reflect the work of 9th century C.E. Jewish textual scholars called “Masoretes”[4] and may be based in an erroneous tradition of repeating the letter ה (heh) when writing the two Hebrew words in question. An earlier reading of this phrase may have been “עָקָר הוּא” (akar hu, “he was impotent”). This phenomenon, dittography, the accidental duplicating of a letter or word, accounts for a variety of problematic words and verses in our Bible.[5]

Since antiquity, rabbis have sought meaning in every letter of the Torah.[6] The Italian Rabbis Ovadyah of Bertinoro of the 15th–16th century[7] and Yedideyah Shelomoh Refa’el Noretzi of the 16th–17th century, the author of Minchat Shay (מנחת שי),[8] noted therefore the odd spelling of “הִ֑וא” (hi, “she”), which has the same consonants as “הוּא” (hu, “he”).[9] Both commentators cited the Babylonian Talmud for granting them the privilege to contemplate the hinted gender ambiguity in this narrative.[10] Commenting on the same verse in our parashah, the sages in the Talmud in fact expressed broader doubts about the matriarchs’ and patriarchs’ abilities to procreate—or even to conform to gendered norms of human bodies:


אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק: יִצְחָק אָבִינוּ עָקוּר הָיָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַה׳ לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ״. ״עַל אִשְׁתּוֹ״ לֹא נֶאֱמַר, אֶלָּא ״לְנוֹכַח״, מְלַמֵּד שֶׁשְּׁנֵיהֶם עֲקוּרִים הָיוּ…
אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק: מִפְּנֵי מָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ עֲקוּרִים? מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מִתְאַוֶּה לִתְפִלָּתָן שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים.
אָמַר רַבִּי אַמֵּי: אַבְרָהָם וְשָׂרָה טוּמְטְמִין הָיוּ…
אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן אָמַר רַבָּה בַּר אֲבוּהּ: שָׂרָה אִמֵּנוּ אַיְלוֹנִית הָיְתָה… אֲפִילּוּ בֵּית וָלָד אֵין לָהּ.

Rabbi Yitzchak said: Isaac our ancestor was impotent, for it says, “Isaac entreated the Lord before the presence of his wife” (Genesis 25:21). “On account of his wife” is not stated [in the verse], but “before the presence [of his wife]” is stated [in the verse]. This teaches that they both were infertile…
Rabbi Yitzchak said: On account of what were our ancestors were impotent? Because the Holy Blessed One longs for the prayer of the righteous.
Rabbi Ammey said: Abraham and Sarah had inaccessible reproductive organs…
Rav Nachman said Rabbah bar Avuh said: Sarah our matriarch was not a developed woman… She even had no womb.[11]


To the rabbis’ credit, the Talmud playfully engages a variety of biblical verses to support the sages’ radical imagining of our ancestors’ bodies as physically obstructed from producing any lineage. The prooftexts that the Talmud provides though barely justify the rabbis’ identifying our forebears as neither fully women nor fully men.[12] The rabbis must have been fascinated instead by the Torah’s stories of great spiritual influencers whose bodies could not make good on divine hopes and dreams. The Torah weaves tragic tales of people with superhuman spiritual connections and incredibly human, imperfect bodies. The biblical archetype of the matriarch par excellence is not a woman who bears many children; the Hebrew Bible encourages us to consider every birthing human a miracle only possible through divine intervention. So too, rabbinic thinkers realized that the men and demi-men who invented Israelite patriarchy did not always valorize fecundity or a certain working body type. Instead, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be linked one to another as archetypes of spiritual seekers in moments of personal strife—the righteous who pray, even when in pain.

Jewish ancestry is open to far more than the binary of men and women or patriarchs and matriarchs. Sarah’s and Abraham’s great lineage, as talmudic sages would teach, might have not started with what many associate with a biological mother and a biological father; the rabbis deemed Sarah and Abraham as belonging to a third or fourth gender in ancient rabbinic culture.[13] The rabbis realized that Israelite heritage was borne by transmitting to a new generation of seekers sacred behaviors that cultivate an awareness of where the Divine resides among us—in sad moments and in joyous times. Our ancestors are not merely biological facts; sometimes they are not even genetically related to us. Our ancestors are spiritual trailblazers whose paved roads we tread today.

We each follow unique paths to securing a sanctified future for the next generation of Jews. This is true even for those of us who might never biologically produce children. Indeed, through teaching, through prayer, and through holy deeds, we plant seeds for a promising future—no matter what our bodies permit us.

[1] Rachel Adelman, “Barren Women in the Bible,” in The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women of the Jewish Women’s Archive (June 23, 2021), as accessed at https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/barren-women-in-the-bible#:~:text=There%20are%20six%20barren%20women,of%20the%20prophet%20Elisha%20(2 on November 23, 2022.

[2] Genesis 25:21.

[3] Gary A. Rendsburg, “Ancient Hebrew Phonology,” in Alan S. Kaye (ed.), Phonologies of Asia and Africa (Including the Caucasus) (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), pp. 65–83, esp. pp. 67–69.

[4] Rendsburg, ibid, esp. pp. 68–69.

[5] See e.g., Emanuel Tov, “Criteria for Evaluating Textual Readings: The Limitations of Textual Rules,” in The Harvard Theological Review 75:4 (October 1983), pp. 429–448, esp. pp. 441–442, fn. 45.

[6] Cf. Burton L. Visotzky, “Jots and Tittles: On Scriptural Interpretation in Rabbinic and Patristic Literatures,” in Prooftexts 8:3 (September 1988), pp. 257–269.

[7] Cf. Abraham David, “Obadiah ben Abraham Yare,” in Fred Skolnik and Michael Berenbaum (eds.), Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd edition, vol. 3 (Detroit, MI: MacMillan Reference USA, 2007), pp. 491–492, esp. p. 491.

[8] Cf. Zvi H. Betzer, “Further Clarifications on the Work of Norzi,” in Hebrew Studies 42 (2001), pp. 257–269.

[9] Cf. both commentators’ glosses on Genesis 25:21.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 64a–64b. Vocalization from the William Davidson Talmud (Koren–Steinsaltz), as accessed at https://www.sefaria.org/Yevamot.64a.9?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en on November 23, 2022.

[12] Ibid.

[13] For various perspectives on the many genders recognized in rabbinic Judaism and in contemporary Jewish life, see, e.g., Noach Dzmura (ed.), Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2014).