Thursday, January 8, 2015

Let's Hear It for The Girls - Reflections on Parashat Shemot 5775

If Bereishit/Genesis, the first book of the Torah, is the story of the Patriarchs, then we must say that Shemot/Exodus is, by and large, the story of Jewish women.

In the very first narrative of the book, we find the Pharaoh bribing the Jewish midwives to accidentally (on purpose) kill the newborn Jewish boys, and let the newborn Jewish girls live. These brave Jewish women defy the Pharaoh, and save the Jewish babies alive.

It is a woman who puts her baby - the future redeemer of Israel - in a waterproof basket to float down the Nile; and it is a young girl who risks her life to keep an eye on that basket from the bulrushes.

Who fishes the baby out of the water and gives him a chance at life? A woman.

Who saves Moses' life by performing an emergency circumcision of their son? A woman.

We are taught that the more the Egyptians tortured and enslaved the Jews, more they increased and multiplied. How so? Because of the self-sacrifice of the Jewish women, who dolled themselves up and shlepped out to fields to consort with their broken, exhausted husbands, reduced as they were to sleeping in the killing fields.

It was the Jewish women who, confident of a great salvation, stood ready at the Reed Sea with musical instruments in hand, while their men were bickering among themselves, bellyaching about surrender.

It was the Jewish women who refused to participate in the death folly of the Golden Calf. It was Jewish women who rejected the report of the cowardly spies, and later on, it was Jewish women who marched right up to Moses and his Council of Sages and made an eloquent plea for the preservation of their family's inheritance in the Land of Israel.

Moses, the Ten Plagues, the Parting of the Red Sea - these are almost side shows compared to the accomplishments of these incredible Jewish women. At every turn of Jewish history, women save the day.

So we must ask: why isn't Shemot called "Jewish Women"? And don't you find it curious that the names of these great women aren't revealed until much later? (PS: The names of the midwives, Shifra and Puah, are a feint, mere noms de guerre.)

Answer: because modesty is the defining characteristic of Jewish Femininity. Jewish women have always eschewed the spotlight, preferring to make their influence felt behind the scenes.

Consider the relationship between  power and influence. Untamed power is raw, capricious, dangerous - like lightning. However, power, if refined, directed, controlled, can be a tremendous force for good - like electricity. 

It is but a small leap to conclude that influence is ultimately more powerful than power itself. Who is more powerful: the king or the kingmaker?

The Author of Life has engineered us such that, in the main, men possess power, and women have influence - meaning the vision, the moral clarity and the ability to direct that power for the Higher Good. 

Jewish history has demonstrated over and over again that when Jewish men ignore the guidance of their wives, they get themselves into serious hot water. "And Gcd said to Abraham: pay heed to whatever your wife Sarah tells you." She had clarity of vision where his perspective was clouded. And Jewish wives have never let us down since.

Like the Yin and the Yang, when men and women work symbiotically, great things can be accomplished in the world, because women's strengths complement men's weaknesses and vice versa. We neither of us can do it on our own.

Judaism is all about balance, about finding the middle path, about holding the center. Tragically, there are strong centrifugal forces pulling Judaism towards the extremes. 

On the right, we are witnessing the islamization of Judaism, with the voice, and indeed, the presence of women, banished from public life. Kol B'Isha Ervah has been rigidly construed to mean that women have no role in Jewish life outside the home: witness the segregated buses, the segregated wedding feasts, the segregated kiddushes, the suffocating neo-Puritanical dress codes of which our grandparents never knew. 

On the left, we have seen the christianization of Judaism, wherein Judaism resembles Unitarianism, only with Jewish stars instead of a crosses; a mitzvah-less, Gcd-less, feel-good Judaism replete with synagogues arranged like churches, women clergy, women cantors, and women serving as lay leaders. Mazal tov! Jewish feminists have proven what we have known anyway for four millenia: that women and men are equally capable. But in arrogating men's power to themselves, they have abdicated their critical role to influence, to guide, to teach, to nurture. And Judaism is immeasurably poorer for it.

Both approaches are fatal. We must look to the Yocheveds, the Miriams, the Zipporahs and the Batyas for guidance. No doubt the greatest accomplishments of Jewish women have yet to be made. And no doubt that they will most assuredly be made by holding the Jewish center; by working together with their husbands, supporting one another, guiding one another, helping one another, to perfect the world for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. As you might remember I worked in "Midwood" Brooklyn (Ave J and East 16th) from 1993 from 1995 for the Brooklyn Public Library. Coming from Long Island to Midwood was a odd juxtaposition for me because everything I saw was familiar but I was still an outsider. Having an identifiably Jewish name should have been an asset, but it in many cases was a liability.

    It was not an accident in Midwood, that I worked side by side with a frum librarian who was married, but did not wear a "sheitel." Her family were members of a Young Israel shul which was very "modern" for that neighborhood, but for me there was only a semantic difference between her practice and theirs. (the hemishe)

    She and her husband (a NYC teacher) had two daughters who went to a day school and the outcomes she wanted for her daughters were very close to what the so called "hemishe" wanted for their daughters. Nevertheless, to them (the hemishe) she was almost as much as an outsider as me, who never attended a day school.

    Yet when I think of the concept Eyshet Chayil, everything she did for her family reflects the song. Did I mention that she would talk often about her work in her Emunah chapter.

    The important thing is for all Jews to come together and for the work and sacrifice that "most" Jewish women do for their families and Am Yisroel be recognized lauded by all Jews regardless of their background or affiliation.