What the Torah says about… women on banknotes

With Rabbi Garry Wayland.

Feminists worldwide celebrated a victory recently, when a social media campaign, led by Caroline Criado-Perez, succeeded in persuading Mark Carney, the new governor of the Bank of England, to put Jane Austen onto the new £10 note.

The subsequent reaction on Twitter saw Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy and others receive abusive tweets at a shocking rate, showing how far some are from accepting women as empowered, influential and inspired.

Surprisingly, there is a Jewish history to women being pictured on currency. When God first commands Abraham to make his historic pilgrimage from Mesopotamia to Israel, He promises him that “I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you and make your name famous.” (Gen. 12.2). The Midrash (Gen. Rab. 39.11) comments that part of the fulfilment of this blessing would be that Abraham’s currency would be circulated. What was on his coin? It had the image of Abraham and Sarah, his wife, on one side as them in their youth, and on the other, in their advanced age. Many commentaries discuss this fascinating imagery.

Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (d.1966) says that the two sides reflect that Abraham and Sarah combined the best character traits of age – wisdom and consistency – with the enthusiasm and energy of youth. Abraham and Sarah worked independently – Rashi notes that, “Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah the women.” They also had very different temperaments. The kabbalistic commentaries note that Abraham viewed the world through the lens of expansive kindness, Sarah through scrutinising justice. Nevertheless, they worked as a team and, as such, their achievements were celebrated jointly.

Both in the wider world, and in Judaism, unfortunately, women’s achievements have been underappreciated. Sometimes this is because society denied them the opportunities to fulfil their potential; in other cases, a skewed history may have been written. Currency is that which underpins a stable society, and it also needs a stable society in which to function; hence heads of state, as guarantors of this stability, feature on currency. Putting Jane Austen on a banknote should not just be about recognising achievement, but acknowledging the fact that everyone – young and old, male and female – is essential for creating a cohesive and functioning society.