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Do We Really Want Our Jewish Daughters To Behave Like The Matriarchs?

As parents of young Jewish children, we’re taught to pray on Shabbat that our daughters be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. It’s never occurred to me to question how literal we’re meant to be. I can’t say I’d wish the fate of any of our Matriarchs on the young women in my life, much less on my own little girl: Consider Sarah who, unable to conceive with Abraham, turns her slave Hagar over to her husband as a surrogate. Hagar gets pregnant and Sarah, envious and resentful, abuses Hagar and forces her into exile — not exactly role model behavior. And what about Leah? Leah knows that Jacob is besotted with her younger sister, Rachel. Their father, however, is intent on marrying off the eldest first, and Leah conspires with him to dupe Jacob into marrying her. Yet we pray that our daughters be like Leah. How can this be?

I give the blessing as a tribute to the Matriarch’s faith and forbearance, not to the lives they led or the choices they made, which feature plenty we find morally repugnant today. It’s the gist of the thing that counts. The blessing binds our daughters to our extended family, and so to our faith.

My daughter has been off and away for a while now, so I haven’t thought about this until it was lobbed back at me from Wimbledon last week.

At a time when we’re primed to revel in whatever good news emerges from the otherwise apocalyptic events of each day — the collective sense of elation at the rescue of the Thai soccer team, for instance — the fact that I wasn’t altogether inspired by Serena Williams’s triumph in returning to Wimbledon felt to me like a moral failing. Commentators, columnists and close friends agreed that Williams, having survived a perilous pregnancy, dodged death at delivery and returned to work in fighting form, had become the new standard bearer for women, affirming finally once and for all, that women are not the weaker sex.

First, I’d say the mere fact that any woman in any circumstance survives childbirth has long been proof enough.

But my thoughts were more churlish than that. Consider all that’s expected of new mothers already: Lose the baby weight, bound back into bed with your husband, don’t drop the ball with your pre-existing children, return to work before maternity leave expires and once you get there, act as if you haven’t missed a beat. Not to mention breastfeeding, pumping and ensuring your newborn is looked after by someone competent and caring. All of this while tethered to a donut pillow, the post-episiotomy accessory of choice.

And now we’re meant to be inspired by a woman who’s made a career of challenging the limits of human pathology? Who could clear this new bar? A champion pole vaulter, perhaps, but that would be mixing metaphors.

Mercifully, Serena Williams sees how misguided this is. As the press promotes her paradoxically, as both a super human and a role model, she replies, “I am not a superhuman. I am just me.”

I hope that in thinking about Williams’ remarkable comeback, young women will consider what Williams is saying and determine their expectations for themselves accordingly. Williams knows she is a singular synthesis of genes, training, drive and self-propulsion. Her singularity is self-evident. Otherwise her story wouldn’t be noteworthy. Williams’s unique combination of strength, prowess and skill has enabled her to blaze a trail that others similarly gifted could follow to similar success. It’s also what makes it confounding. Williams recognizes that she is unique. But the myth she has inspired insists she is not, that any one of us can be Serena. While there’s no harm at all in referencing her awesome achievements for personal motivation, to hold such colossal accomplishments as a universal aspiration may be self-defeating for those of us who, having given birth, felt we’d scored one for our sex by getting back on our feet and remembering to take out the trash on Thursdays.

I found Serena Williams most inspiring earlier in the season, when she backed out of several tournaments she’d been scheduled to play. On those occasions she spoke about her difficulty recovering from delivery, seeming to liberate young mothers from the convention that calls for us to buck up when we’ve basically been through a detonation.

Now back to the Matriarchs. We can celebrate Williams’ unique attributes and enjoy her athletic performance independent of our expectations for ourselves and each other, just as we honor the Matriarchs in their piety and commitment to our people without wanting our girls to emulate their subjugation and extreme self-denial. In saying “I am just me,” Williams distinguishes herself from the mythical Williams. Perhaps on Shabbat once they’ve been blessed the traditional way, we should pray that our daughters grow to make similar self-affirming declarations of their own.

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