The campaign for women’s equality begins in the Torah with the story of Sarah. Sarah was the realist counterweight to her God-fearing husband, Abraham. Not until a millennium later, when we reach Deborah in the book of judges, do we glimpse women’s leadership and parity. And the “torah” of women continues right through to Taylor Swift.
Sarah is the dutiful wife of Abraham. She shleps along with him as he travels from Ur to Haran to Bethel. Sarah is beautiful and barren. She is abused when Abraham passes her off as his sister. Sarah is abusive when she mistreats her servant Hagar. Sarah is rarely quoted and never demonstrates her better nature. She scoffs at angels and God. She demands that Hagar be banished. Sarah is a biblical badass, struggling with her second-class status.
Fast forward to October 22, 2022. That day the news included threats to our democracy, fears of nuclear war, and weakness in our economy. And the big news was that a new Taylor Swift album “midnights” dropped at midnight. One week later, fans downloaded the album 423 million times. The music is haled for its honest reflections on Swift’s life and relationships. Americans are more likely to have listened to Taylor Swift than the news on October 22.
Swift has made her mark as an anti-hero through her musical and lyrical talents. She stands behind no man. Swift is unafraid to reveal her weaknesses. She is even self-deprecating but only as a form of self-empowerment.
Sarah’s persona is redeemable when understood as a woman focused on the long path. She moves to a “promised land”, enduring famine and degradation to achieve a greater good. She offers her handmaid for the sake of progeny but later expels her stepson for the sake of a God-given Jewish future. Sarah is selfless and determined in her role as the mother of a nation.
Taylor Swift’s Torah presents the opposite. Her self-awareness is disarming. Quinn Moreland wrote that this is “emotional bloodletting.” Swift owns her sass and her vindictiveness. Her career does not take a back seat to personal relationships. Rather Swift owes her career to her ability to share the travails of her love life. Her attraction to listeners lies in empowerment born of revealing every aspect of her persona.
In 2022, Taylor Swift’s narrative of self-enfranchisement is far more compelling than the chronicle of Sarah’s dutiful and supporting role. Yet, neither community building nor societal affirmation appears within the Swiftian storyline. Swift has brought us to the peak of self-absorption in mapping out the psychology of her emancipation.
The interpreters of the Torah of today understand Sarah as a victim and Swift as an anti-hero. We need a scripture that portrays a woman who is both confident in her strength and focused on the future.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame