My contribution to this evening’s reflections focuses on a story, the formative story of the Jewish people, which Jews the world over will return to in three weeks time, when we celebrate the festival of Pesach – Passover. Today, the human population of the globe has expanded to six and a half billion; of that number just 14.2 million are Jews; a tiny minority; it has always been so. And yet this story has provided a powerful raison d’etre for Jewish existence – ultimately more powerful than persecution and genocide – because this story is about our liberation from persecution and genocide.
One might say that the Jewish people is still here, despite our recurring experience of persecution and genocide, because of the inspiration we have drawn from this story: The Eternal One is a liberator; ultimately the oppressed must go free. And yet, in recounting this story, we have sometimes forgotten the key individuals, whose actions made the liberation possible. Even those, for whom the Bible is not their sacred literature, have probably heard of Moses – the fugitive-turned-shepherd, who was apprehended by the Eternal One in the wilderness, and then sent on a mission to return to Egypt and persuade both Pharaoh and the slaves that freedom was at hand. But what about the other important characters?
Let me remind you on the story: As the Book of Exodus opens, we read that a new king had come to the throne, who ‘did not know Joseph’ (1:8) – the Hebrew who had settled with his family in Egypt some time earlier. Unlike his predecessor, who tolerated the presence of this minority people, the new Pharaoh was afraid that they might grow too numerous and pose a threat to his rule (1:9). So, he decided to enslave the Hebrews (1:11-14), and then instructed the mid-wives to kill all the new-born males (1:15-16). But he didn’t reckon on the courage of two particular midwives, Shifra and Pu’ah, who defying his orders, ensured that the baby-boys lived (1:17-19); and he knew nothing of one family, of a mother and her eldest child, a daughter – unnamed at this point – whose bold and decisive actions ensured that the baby boy of their family, did not die (2:2ff.). Not only did the mother prepare a floating basket and hide her baby in the reeds of the river; standing guard, the daughter was quick to act when Pharaoh’s daughter came down to the river to bathe and found the baby – offering the princess the services of a Hebrew woman as a wet-nurse: hence the baby Moses grew up in the Egyptian court, with his mother looking after him until he was weaned.
So, a small band of women subverted the great and powerful Pharaoh. On one level this story serves no other purpose than to provide an explanation of how Moses survived to lead his people out of bondage and into freedom. Looked at in this way, the women involved simply serve the narrative, which centres on the all-important male figure. Nevertheless, their role in a story that is essentially about Moses doesn’t diminish the importance of what they did – and the immense courage and determination that exhibited in the face of tyranny.
But, as it happens, one female character in the Exodus story does much more than serve the plot – Moses’ sister. The Torah makes no mention of her again until, years after she saved her baby brother, she surfaces once more: The slaves have escaped Egypt, passed safely on dry-land through the sea of reeds, and Moses has led them in a song of exultation. Then we read (Exodus 15: 20:21a):
Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. / and Miriam sang to them.
It’s only a small word in Hebrew – lahem – ‘to them’ – but, interestingly, it is the masculine gender. Hebrew is a gendered language – there are no ’neutral’ ways of speaking; by using the masculine gender, by saying lahem instead of lahen, the Torah let’s us know that Miriam sang not only to the women – lahen – but also, to all the people – hence, lahem. It seems like a tiny point. But it is very important. We haven’t heard from the sister of Moses for fourteen chapters – three portions of the Torah – and now suddenly she not only appears, she is given a name, Miriam, and is described as ‘the prophetess, the sister of Aaron’. This description is contradictory: If Miriam is a prophetess – n’vi’ah – then she is parallel to Moses, who is later called a prophet – navi (Deuteronomy 34:10); but her designation as ‘the sister of Aaron’, suggests that, together with Aaron, who is not called a prophet, she shares a lower status than Moses. And yet, Miriam not only leads the women – a secondary sub-set of the people – she also sings to the whole community. But this short but dense reference to Miriam is very frustrating for readers of the Torah, interested in knowing more about her: while Moses and Aaron take centre-stage, after this tantalising glimpse, Miriam immediately disappears from the narrative once more until chapter 12 of the fourth book of the Torah, the Book of Numbers.
Miriam’s absence from the story is baffling enough – but when we do meet Miriam again, she is leading a rebellion – against Moses! If you read the English translation, you will find that it says: ‘Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses’ (Numbers 12:1). But the Hebrew puts the verb in the feminine singular: Va-t’dabbeir – which means ‘She spoke’. So a more accurate translation would be: ‘Miriam spoke – and Aaron – against Moses’. Aaron went along with her – but Miriam was the prime-mover. The Torah tells us that Miriam – and Aaron – spoke against Moses, for two reasons: first, because of the Cushite woman, whom Moses had married (:1) – did Miriam perhaps feel aggrieved on the part of Moses’ existing wife, Tzipporah? – and, second, because of Moses’ exclusive relationship with God. It isn’t surprising that Miriam, ‘the prophetess’ should feel aggrieved. And, also, not surprising that although Aaron joins her in saying: ‘Has the Eternal indeed spoken only with Moses? Has He not spoken also with us?’ (:2); Miriam alone is punished: her skin made leprous, as ‘white as snow’ (:10).
Miriam is punished for stepping out of line, for forgetting her place. But that is not the end of the matter. Like all those with ‘leprosy’, she is shut out of the camp for seven days until she is healed. But the Torah makes a point of saying that ‘the people did not journey on until Miriam was brought in again’ (:15). On the one hand, the Torah account marginalises Miriam; on the other, the Torah acknowledges the importance of her leadership role for the people.
Miriam’s challenge to Moses is the first of a series of rebellions against Moses – and, subsequently, against Aaron, too – recounted in the Book of Numbers. The rebellions take place in the second year of their wilderness journey – when the people have already reached the border of the land beyond the Jordan, which is their destination. However, they are condemned, for their rebelliousness, to wander for forty years until the last member of the generation that left Egypt, has died (Numbers 14:28ff.). Silent, once more, about Miriam following her outburst, the Torah says nothing about those thirty-eight years. And then, significantly, when the narrative resumes in the first month of the fortieth year, the first thing is relates is that after arriving in the wilderness of Tzin, and settling at Kadesh, ‘Miriam died there’ (Numbers 20:1). The eldest of three sibling leaders died first. It makes sense. But the brevity of the reference to Miriam’s death immediately after the yawning lacunae in the narrative, only serves to highlight how little is said about her in the Torah – less than thirty verses in total.
Interestingly, the midrash – rabbinic commentary – regarding Miriam goes some way to compensate for the marginal role she plays in the Torah. Immediately following Miriam’s death, the Torah relates that the people murmured against Moses and Aaron for lack of water (Numbers 20:2ff.). The rabbis made a connection between the two events: And so we read in the midrash* that during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, ‘Miriam’s Well’ accompanied the Israelites on all their journeys; it only dried up after she died – hence the clamour for water.
Why did the rabbis, the scholarly leadership of the Jewish people, following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, choose to relate this whimsical tale about Miriam? Was it perhaps, one of the forgotten stories about her that didn’t get included in the Torah? Or does the story simply emerge out of the imperative of exegesis – interpretation – demanded by the text? If the Torah says Miriam was a n’vi’ah, a ‘prophetess’, and shows us glimpses of her leadership, surely her role in the Exodus and wilderness narratives was much more significant than the Torah lets on.
That’s the point: Miriam was one of the leaders of the Exodus – and more than this, her role was crucial. Together with her mother, Yocheved, and the midwives, Shifra and Pu’ah, she played a key part in setting the Exodus in motion; together they were agents of change, long before Moses and Aaron became involved.
But there is another point – which is the reason why I have shared the story of Miriam with you this evening: Judaism was not shaped by Miriam and Yocheved and Shifra and Pu’ah; it was shaped by Moses and Aaron and the men who came after them. The Torah tells the stories that men have told about the creation of the world and the formation of the Jewish people. The teachings of the Torah, elaborated later by the rabbis, were formulated by men for societal arrangements in which women’s role was circumscribed within the private, domestic arena. Of course, women appear in the Torah, in the Tanach, that is, the Hebrew Bible, and in rabbinic literature, but only a few exceptional women are included – and even these exceptional women serve the narrative that centres on the experience of men. The story of Miriam – the most exceptional of the exceptions proves the rule.
But that said, Miriam is also a very inspiring figure: The American anarchist, a Jewish woman called Emma Goldman, who challenged the male radical leadership of her day once said, ‘If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution’. Miriam wasn’t only a woman of action, bold and intelligent, she spoke out against an exclusive patriarchal leadership and had the spirit to sing and dance her way to liberation.
Nevertheless, we can’t get away from the fact that Miriam was a lone woman leader in a male-dominated world – and that for generations, feisty women have been exceptions. But today we inhabit a different age. We still live in a male-dominated society, but during the past three decades something has begun to change. For the first time, since the sages deliberated in their academies over two thousand years ago, Jewishly-educated women – many of them rabbis – writing, and engaging with one another consciously as Jewish women, have begun to study the Torah and the corpus of rabbinic literature. In doing so, they have not only challenged the gender divide, but also the gender of God. Despite Moses’ mysterious encounter with the nameless, elusive, ineffable One in the wilderness (Exodus 3:14), God is presented in both the Torah, and subsequent rabbinic teaching, predominantly as male. Alongside new interpretations of the Torah and rabbinic texts, women have challenged the patriarchal God by re-interpreting the Eternal One – in myriad ways. What all these new approaches to the Eternal share in common is the awareness of the power of language and imagery about the Divine to shape and reinforce gender relations: When God ceases to be regarded as Adonai Tz’va’ot, ‘the Lord of Hosts’ and melech malchey ha-m’lachim, ‘the king above the king of kings’; the power of warrior lords and of kings and emperors and dictators of various kinds is no longer legitimated ‘on high’.
So, where once there were lone exceptional Jewish women; today women as a collectivity have begun to transform Jewish life and teaching. What does it mean for Jewish women as a collectivity, to move from the margins to the centre; from the private to the public arena of Jewish life? It means women becoming leaders of religious services and synagogue Councils. It means women engaging in learning and teaching. It means women re-interpreting the Torah. It means that Jewish life is changing – not only for Jewish daughters, but for Jewish sons, too.
And the leadership of women rabbis has been crucial to this process. The first woman rabbi in Britain, Jackie Tabick, was ordained in 1975 before Jewish feminism arrived on the scene. Today, half of the seventy progressive rabbis in Britain are women. To give you an example of the significance of women’s rabbinic leadership: Directly as a result of the work of women rabbis, the Liberal and Reform movements have produced gender-inclusive liturgy. Indeed, published in 1995, the Liberal prayer-book, Siddur Lev Chadash, for daily and Sabbath use, has had a significant impact on congregational life. Alongside the development of gender inclusive liturgy, women rabbis have also been involved in developing new rituals, which celebrate women’s lives, for example, covenant ceremonies for girls, while enabling women to lay claim to rituals and practices, like the wearing of tallit, the prayer-shawl, which have previously been the exclusive prerogative of Jewish men.
Of course, there is still a long way to go before there is complete gender equality in Jewish life – but still, the transformations that have already taken place are bound to make us wonder: What would the synagogue and the home look and feel like if women and men played full and equal parts in both domains? What difference would it make to the life of the Jewish people as a whole if Jewish teaching was transformed in such a way that it reflected the perspectives and experiences of Jewish women as well as those of Jewish men?
For the first time in the history of the Jewish people, Jewish women as a collectivity have become agents of change, and are in the process of transforming Judaism into an egalitarian, inclusive inheritance. And so it will that in three weeks time when Jews around the world sit around tables in their homes and synagogues for the seder, the ‘order’ of the telling of the Exodus story, which is a central feature of the observance of Pesach, among many progressive Jews a significant new element will be added to the proceedings: Alongside the Cup of Elijah – the prophet, who, according to tradition, will herald the coming of the Messiah, the messianic future of liberation, justice and peace for all the world – they will place the Cup of Miriam. While the Cup of Elijah contains the fruit of the vine, the Cup of Miriam contains water; while, in Judaism, the fruit of the vine is a symbol of joy and celebration; water is a symbol of life. As we celebrate Pesach in joy, we look forward with hope to the joy of deliverance from oppression in the future. But the future will not simply happen automatically: That is the lesson of Miriam’s life from the waters of the Nile, through the waters of the Sea of Reeds, to the River Jordan; life is a journey and a commandment; every step along the way, we are challenged to act, so that the promise of liberation, justice and peace, may become a reality for all.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Interfaith Contact Group Women in Faith Dialogue Event
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue
17th March 2009
*See Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg, Vol. III (JPSA, Philadelphia, 1968), where the various midrashim about Miriam are compiled together under different headings, including, ‘Miriam’s Well’, pp.50-44.