When listening to the plaintive beauty of today’s Haftorah, its narrative of Hannah’s desperation for a child seems simple and moving. Yet, every Rosh Hashanah, this text has puzzled me. Why if Hannah wanted a child so badly was she ready to give it away as soon as it was weaned? Why are the other characters in the narrative portrayed as insensitive? It’s not just that Peninah taunts Hannah for her infertility, but also that Elkanah fails to understand the deep unhappiness of his much-loved wife, while the High Priest Eli lacks the discernment to perceive Hannah’s distress, mistaking her silent prayer for a state of inebriation. And then, to my ear, Hannah’s petition to God has the tone of a bargain – God, if you do this for me, I’ll do this for you. Is this really how we should relate to the Divine?
So, I was grateful to be asked to give today’s address. It has provided me with the incentive to read, think and seek answers.
Hannah is not a modern woman and her pain at being childless differs from that of infertile women in Western societies today. In the text, we are being transported back to the ancient Near East where a women’s worth was measured by the number of children (preferably male) she would bear her husband. Infertility then was a social stigma, and barren women were treated as of no account in their communities. God, it was thought, had closed their wombs either because He had forgotten them or, worse still, was punishing them for some transgression. Hannah is, therefore, a prey to Peninah’s taunts at home and publicly humiliated during the religious rites at Shiloh when, in accordance with custom, Elkanah distributes portions of the sacrifice to his second wife’s children. Whatever may be her biological instinct for maternity, Hannah has need to give birth to a son in order to gain a degree of status within her family and community. Her pledge to give him away by ‘lending’ him to the priesthood is thus entirely explicable.
Both Peninah and Elkanah’s behaviour are equally understandable if we set them within their historical-cultural context. Where there is polygamy we would expect jealousies amongst co-wives, especially when the husband obviously favours one over another, so no wonder Peninah throws her successful role as a mother in Hannah’s face. As for Elkanah, he already has the sons he needs, and his sympathy for Hannah is consequently limited. Yes, he has no wish to divorce his barren wife and affectionately gives her the double portion. But, in the text he makes no attempt to protect her from Penina’s taunts, while the double portion may have intensified bad feeling between the two women. Elkanah’s rhetorical questions reveal his blindness to the causes and depth of Hannah’s anguish, for he sees her pain purely in terms of their relationship – ‘am I not better to thee than ten sons’.
Yet, Hannah does not remain a prisoner of this patriarchal society; she transcends it through prayer. There are several points I want to make here. First, Hannah’s ‘bargain’ gives her agency over her life and future. When praying, she not only reminds God of her presence – ‘remember me and not forget’ – but also negotiates with God to change what He has ordained; she in return will dedicate her son, as a Nazarite, to the service of the Lord for the whole of his life. This transaction with God allows her to play an active part in her own destiny. Here she has been compared to both Jonah and Abraham, who also negotiate with God, and consequently she is included as one of the seven biblical Prophetesses in rabbinic literature.
Second, Hannah maps out the destiny of the son she hopes to bear. She asks for a Zera Anashim. Though usually translated as a man-child, the wordsliterally mean ‘the seed of men’ and are taken by Talmudic rabbis to signify a ‘great man’. By asking for a Zera Anashim Hannah is thus seeking to have a child who will be special. Some sources say that she intends this son to purify the priesthood and help redeem Israel. The Babylonian Talmud has Hannah rebuke the High Priest with the words: ‘You are no lord in this manner, nor is the Shekhinah [Divine Presence] with you, since you took a harsh view of my conduct’ (BT Berakhot 31a-b). In a midrash she says to Eli: ‘The spirit of divine inspiration does not rest on you if you suspect me of this’. Hannah therefore perceives the inadequacies of Eli’s spiritual leadership, just as she recognises - according to another source – the corruption and depravity of his sons. These authorities conjecture that - like Sarah and Rebecca - Hannah intuits and foresees her son’s forthcoming role in the history of the Jewish people. More prosaically, Hannah plans her child’s immediate future on her own initiative without consulting his father.
Finally, according to the rabbis, Hannah’s prayer was both an innovation and a model for the Amidah. Up to that time, liturgical prayer in the Tabernacle had been public, vocal and communal but Hannah’s prayer is inward, silent and individual, the first mention in the bible of a petitionary prayer articulating personal needs and private requests. Although rabbis are not noted for embracing innovation, they generally approve of Hannah’s new form of prayer. Both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud state that one should learn to pray from Hannah, for she displays kavvanah (the intentionality and attention needed for sincere prayer), and they derive the rules for the Amidah from her prayer. The Amidah should be said with congregants silently mouthing the words, because when Hannah prays ‘only her lips moved’, signifying that her prayer – as all serious prayer – comes from the heart not the voice; she mouths the words because prayer is not just meditative but a profound effort at communication that requires recitation. Later in the text (verse 26), when Hannah says ‘I am the woman who stood here beside you’, we learn that she was praying on her feet alongside Eli who was also standing. From this, the Talmud [Berakhot 31b] thus rules that no-one is allowed to sit within four cubits (about 6 feet) of someone saying the Amidah and that those praying must continue standing until the last person has finished. Another Talmudic source points out that nine, the number of times Hannah mentions God in her prayer, corresponds to the number of blessings unique to the composition of the Amidah for Rosh Hashanah – traditionally the birthday of Samuel.
Through prayer, Hannah embarks on a journey of self-transformation. At the start of the text she is utterly powerless in her situation of K’shat ruach (a sorrowful spirit) and marat nefesh (an embittered soul). Unable to articulate her despair, Hannah’s speechlessness is a marked feature of the early verses: she does not complain to Elkanah about Peninah’s treatment; she does not answer his series of questions; and she prays to God without uttering a sound. Yet, once she has confronted her pain head-on by pouring out her heart to the Lord, she finds her voice: she is able to correct Eli, despite his eminence; she names her son; and after Samuel has been delivered to Eli, she sings out joyfully her eloquent thanksgiving to God. Many commentators argue that it was the act of prayer - and not just that her request was granted – that brought about this transformation. Joseph Soloveitchik, explained. ‘through prayer man finds himself ... It tells man the story of his hidden hopes and expectations.’
Today many people, including myself, cannot find such understanding and solace in personal prayer. As agnostics, or believers in an impersonal God, prayer - outside a communal liturgical experience - is not an option. However, Hannah’s path of pouring out her heart, facing up to her painful situation, and taking control of her life is a process we can and should try to follow. But it is not easy. And sometimes we need help to do this. For that reason the Oxford Jewish Community has set up BLESS, a counselling and support service, to provide a sympathetic and trained ear for those suffering from any kind of emotional loss. From my experience, accepting counselling – especially bereavement counselling - can provide not just a route to comfort but also an opening for individual growth that can mirror the spiritual growth of Hannah.
Hannah is therefore an inspirational figure. She is active in her own destiny, an influential player in our national story, and a model for individual self-growth. But there is one aspect to the text and its reception that still troubles me. It exemplifies the ambivalence that Judaic authorities had and, worse, continue to have towards women. Here is a woman who according to tradition revolutionises prayer, tells us how to pray, and sings out a psalm of thanksgiving, yet in most orthodox circles women’s prayer is not valued and sometimes silenced. Paradoxically, despite Hannah’s prayer providing the rules for the Amidah - the most important prayer of the synagogue – women do not count as part of the quorum. And how many women here have been told not to recite Kaddish at a loved one’s funeral, as I was at my mother’s and sister’s? This is hardly a major abuse of women’s rights, but our lack of equality in ritual obligation and matrimonial law is an issue that I believe needs addressing.
Individual modern orthodox women are trying to find ways round the prohibitions. Additionally, in Jerusalem, activist women, mainly from masorti and reform traditions, have fought for the legal right to hold services and wear prayer shawls in the women’s section of the Western Wall. Perhaps these modern-day Hannahs can eventually change mainstream orthodoxy so that our daughters or granddaughters - given that the pace of change is so slow –can experience full participation in Jewish life.
Shona Tova u’matuka