A message from Cantor Kate Judd~
How to Resist: Lessons from Some Biblical Women
For a patriarchal religion, Judaism has a remarkably long, strong tradition of powerful, even subversive women. The Book of Shemot, or Exodus, which we’ve been reading in February and March, contains several: Shifra and Pu’ah the Egyptian midwives, Yocheved the mother of Moses, Moses’s sister Miryam, Pharaoh’s daughter (as you see, not all these daring women were Jewish), and Moses’s wife, Tzipporah. We’ve read about a few in recent Haftarot, as well – in particular Devorah (one of five women prophets identified in the Bible, along with Miryam, Huldah, Noadiah, and the un-named wife of Isaiah) and Yael. And then, of course, for Purim we’ll read the Megillah, which features that classic figure of subversive Jewish womanhood, Esther, as well as Vashti, the Queen who dared to defy her husband.
One could say that it is exactly because Judaism is patriarchal that it has fostered female subversion. Leaders who have a low regard for the power of women, as we see in the present day, may be the cause of women finding and expressing their power. But one can also argue that Judaism has, at least in the Hebrew Bible, kept alive something older and wilder: a true tradition of women as leaders, as rebels, as prophets – powers in their own right, rather than just mothers, daughters, and wives of men. Let’s take a closer look at some of the lessons these women have for us today (whatever our gender identity).
Shifra and Pu’ah appear just once in the Torah, in the first chapter of Shemot (Exodus). Pharaoh orders them to kill all he newborn boys of the Hebrew women. The midwives, we’re told, “feared God” and did not kill any babies. When Pharaoh asked them why not, they told him, “Oh, the Hebrew women are so much livelier than the Egyptian women – they give birth before we can even get there!”
Most of the Talmudic rabbis thought that Pu’ah was really Miryam, and that Shifra was really her mother Yocheved. They had all sorts of colorful explanations for why they were called different names in this story. But later commentators such as Yehudah HaChasid and Isaac Abravanel concluded that the women were in fact Egyptians. “They were not Hebrews,” writes Abravanel, “since how could [Pharaoh’s] mind be confident that Hebrew women would murder their own [people’s] babies?! Rather, they are the ‘midwives of the Hebrews,’ who assist the [Hebrew women] in the birthing process.”
What can we learn from Shifra and Pu’ah, today? Powerful women can fight back against oppression by all kinds of non-violent resistance. Also, we should fight for people outside our own identity groups. Suppose, for instance, that a new Pharaoh were to ask Jewish midwives of today to kill Moslem first-born sons. Perhaps that Pharaoh would think, “You are Jewish – the Moslems are your sworn enemies.” But the midwives might think, as Shifra and Pu’ah may have done, “We are women. Women – and their innocent children – are our own kind. Our religionand our national identity matter less than our humanity. Let us stop this evil from occurring”. Arthur Waskow argues that the midwives were the first case of non-violent civil disobedience. This is a good lesson to learn from Shifra and Pu’ah.
Yocheved, too, resisted Pharaoh. She hid her son Moses, lest he be murdered and, when he was too old to hide, she put him in a basket and set him afloat, hoping that someone would find and rescue him. But she sent along Miryam – or perhaps Miryam volunteered herself – to watch over the baby. He was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, who said right away, “This must be a Hebrew baby.” Yet when Miryam, hovering handily nearby, suggested that they get a Hebrew to nurse him, Pharaoh’s daughter agreed readily. So Moses went back and grew up with his own mother, only going to live with Pharaoh’s daughter when he was grown. This is truly a tale of interconnected womanpower. Yocheved’s and Miryam’s daring meet with Pharaoh’s daughter’s compassion, and out of it comes the man who will rescue the Israelites from their enslavement. There are so many lessons in this. We can make alliances – even with those who we might have thought were enemies. We can take risks. The compassion of women for children can override the most compassionless ruler, and may lead to the most astonishing outcomes.
Tzipporah, Moses’s wife, teaches us two more important lessons. One seems simple: God is fine with interracial marriage. Moses married a “Cushite” – a dark-skinned, possibly African woman. God had no difficulty with this and indeed was so angry with Miryam for gossiping and complaining about it that he inflicted her with a skin disease. The tradition holds that Tzipporah converted – and it appears in the story that she must have, for it was she who performed an emergency roadside circumcision on her son. Why the emergency? Well, God was trying to strike Moses dead for not having done the circumcision yet! So Tzipporah teaches us not only about racial justice, but also that it may be the convert who saves the born Jew, by knowing the right ritual at the right time!
The Prophet Devorah and Yael teach us a fiercer lesson. Devorah sent Barak the warrior to rescue the Israelites from Sisera and the Canaanites. When Barak said, “Come with me, “she said, “Ok, I will – and by the way, don’t think that your male ego will get any strokes from this adventure, because by the time you get there, Adonai will have delivered Sisera into the hand of a woman.” When Barak arrived, Yael had entrapped Sisera and banged a pike through his head! So while we learn non-violent resistance from Shifra and Pu’ah, we also learn that there are times to fight the enemy more actively. Tikva Frymer-Kensky also notes of Devorah, “Like Moses, Deborah is not a battle commander. Her role is to inspire, predict, and celebrate in song. Her weapon is the word, and her very name is an anagram of “she spoke” (dibberah).” So our battle may take a gruesomely active route (if we emulate Yael), but it could also involve speaking the truth to power, and foretelling what will happen if God grants us any insight in that direction.
At last we come to Esther and Vashti. The midrash tells us that when King Achashverosh called for Vashti to dance for all his assembled nobles, he asked her to wear her crown – and nothing else! “She refuses,” writes Wendy Amsellem, “to have her appearances before the king regulated solely by his desires.” By saying “No!” she gets kicked out of the palace – and possibly loses her life – but for many feminists she represents an example of standing up to the kind of man who thinks women are only there for him to look at (or grab). Her act so frightens Achashverosh and his court that they send out an edict that “every man must rule in his household”. Those uppity women – – they can cause so much trouble!
As for Esther, she appears to be the perfect woman – well groomed (for months!), dutiful to her Uncle Mordechai and to her husband the King, and reluctant to rock the boat. Yet when her people are threatened (and yes, she herself – she is not without self-interest), as Amsellem writes, “She takes matters into her own hands and stands up to both sources of authority.” She finds the power to do what needs to be done – not merely by obeying her uncle, but by ingeniously plotting in her own way to convince the King using food, drink, and sex appeal. As from Vashti we learn the power of refusing to go along with our own exploitation, so from Esther we learn that if direct resistance doesn’t work, flattery and connivance can win the day.
In the end, no matter where we are on the gender identity spectrum, the powerful women of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) have many lessons to teach us. When times look dark, when forces of oppression and hatred are on the rise, when incompetent, power-hungry, and narcissistic rulers appear to have the upper hand, we must not despair. We must use all the tools available – from the passive to the active, from the direct and obvious to the indirect and sly, to bring back the light and joy to our people, our nation, and our world.