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Pharaoh's daughter is a woman to be admired
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With power comes responsibility

Jews, women have often been victims of those in power. Ethical test for feminism and Zionism is if we can stop perceiving ourselves as victims, begin to take moral responsibility for things being done around us and under our sponsorship

"Come Forth, Come Forth Girls" (from the chorus of a song written by Israeli poet Yoram Taharlev that deals with the life cycle of women, told from a female perspective, on the social pressures they experience).


The Torah portions that conclude the book of Genesis can be characterized by their absence of women from the arena of the narrative's events. In contrast, we open the book of Exodus with a spectacular parade of the greatest women of the period of the enslavement in Egypt and the wanderings in the wilderness.

They include Shifrah and Pu'ah the midwives, Levi's daughter, Moses' sister, Pharaoh's daughter, and Yitro's daughter's, among them Moses' future wife, Tzipporah.


The most prominent commonality between these women is their choice to resist a child murdering tyrant, and to save the savior himself, Moses. This is true in relation to Tzipporah as well, who did not struggle against Pharaoh, but who did resist a mysterious figure who threatened Moses' life. And so it is that without exception that all the women of the book of our weekly portion choose to risk their lives in a struggle of protest against the patriarchy (yes... for the sake of the new, replacement patriarch, of course).


Princess displays her bravery

The story of Pharaoh's daughter is inspiring. The tyrant's daughter, who was living a life of comfort and luxury, decides to publicly rebel against her father's genocidal orders, and saves a Hebrew child. She collaborates with the boy's mother and sister, and if all of this wasn't enough, she names the baby a name that is itself a protest, a public declaration of disobedience to her father's command (Exodus 2:10): "And she called his name Moses, and said: 'Because I drew him out of the water."


Canons thunder while girls bathe

As mentioned above, the story of Pharaoh's daughter begins with an apparently innocent and serene scene, when she goes down to with her handmaidens to bathe in the Nile river. Also in the story of David and Bat Sheva, the bathing of the female heroine functions as a starting point for the story's plot. Many connecting threads can be woven between these two stories. With the following words I would like to compare these women's bathing stories and learn from them different models of feminine intervention in the cruelty of ruling authority.


Both of the experiences of bathing, one of Pharaoh's daughter and one of Bat Sheva, are described against a background of cruel and unnatural death, the killing of men initiated by the rulers. Pharaoh is preoccupied with genocide and, as it were, David is sending the children of Israel to the front lines to waste their souls in war attempting to destroy the Ammonites, while he sits comfortably back in his palace in Jerusalem.


Female bathing symbolizes the separation between the world of women and the world of men. The men are engaging in blood baths and the women are bathing in aromatic oils and water. The women did not initiate the war, nor do they partake in it. The bathing occurs in a liminal place, an intermediate threshold where the 'world of women' is exposed to the 'world of men' and allows the two to meet. Pharaoh's daughter bathes in a Nile river full of corpses of children murdered at her father's command. Bat Sheva bathes across from David's rooftop porch.


For these two women, being at the boundary invites difficult challenges. It is a period of great bloodshed for the kings and both Pharaoh's daughter and Bat Sheva are against their will, thrown into the mix. It is hardly surprising that when women are property or objects, they are placed on the sidelines of the "great masculine story."


Nevertheless at the story's end they will be the two women responsible for the birth of the leader of the Jewish people. Pharaoh's daughter saves and adopts Moses who will take the Israelites out of Egypt. Bat Sheva gives birth to Solomon who will build the Temple. Even the names of these two leaders (in Hebrew Moshe and Shlomo) are strikingly similar.


Despite all this – the difference

The big difference between Pharaoh's daughter and Bat Sheva is in the choice, or ability to transform one's self from object to subject. To transform from a passive victim of a criminal act to a fighter for freedom and justice. And indeed, the pro-activity of Pharaoh's daughter is emphasized throughout the entire length of the story. The short text about her includes eleven verbs (Exodus 2:5-6 and 2:8): ״And she went down," "and she saw," "and she sent," "and she took," "and she opened," "and she saw him," "and she had compassion," "and she said," "and she named him."


Against this the actions attributed to Bat Sheva are few and difficult (Samuel 2, 11:2 and 11:4-5): "Bathing," "she came in onto him," "was purified from her uncleanliness," "and she returned," "and she sent," "and she said." The main difference is, of course, the inverse relationship between the compassion of Pharaoh's daughter and the "was purified from her uncleanliness" of Bat Sheva. Moreover, both women speak. When Pharaoh's daughter speaks, she issues instructions to save the child, while Bat Sheva only speaks out of self interest after she learns she has conceived and is with child (Samuel 2, 11:5): "And she sent and told David, and said, 'I am with child.'"


Don't judge Bat Sheva

The difference between the two leaders is prominent and needs to be addressed. One cannot judge Pharaoh as one judges David. Yet despite that in both stories the leaders behave with mastery over the lives of those whom they rule, and the women are excluded from their cruel game. In both stories the women are pushed, just for a moment, into the male arena. The narrator traps the bathing queens and they, possibly against their will, join the unfolding plot.


With the similar literary background, it is tempting to make an ethical comparison between Bat Sheva and Pharaoh's daughter. However such a comparison is forbidden. The true moral test is the test of the attacker, of the one in a position of power who abuses his authority. It is a terrible injustice to place the moral blame on the victim that kept quiet. It should not be surprising when victims keep quite as victims are victims!


Certainly Bat Sheva does not deserve criticism. It is wrong to demand of a victim to endanger his or her life for others. I do not know, and I hope never to know, what I would do if I would find myself in Bat Sheva's situation. It is impossible to demand from victims what Pharaoh's daughter did. Pharaoh's daughter is a unique and outstanding individual. Pharaoh's daughter is a woman to be admired.


When victim becomes ruler

People who live in the periphery of "major events" are also peripherally located in relation to the moral responsibility to pursue legal claims bound to these same happenings. Power and responsibility are bound together. It is impossible to blame Pharaoh's daughter with the murder of Hebrew babies and it is impossible to demand of her that she save them. It is impossible to place the responsibility on marginalized Bat Sheva for saving Uriah, her husband.


Jews and women have often been the victims of government leaders and those in power, yet they do not bear the moral responsibility for their persecutors' crimes. The Zionist revolution and the feminist revolution, which occurred around the same period, changed or at least allowed for the possibility of change in the balance of power. Jews now have a state and therefore responsibility regarding "major events," and women now have the possibility to lead and rule over, to choose and be chosen.


The ethical test for feminism and for Zionism is if we can stop perceiving ourselves as victims and begin to take moral responsibility for the things being done around us, and certainly those being done under our sponsorship.


We, as Israelis, cannot continue to maintain the narrative expressed in the Passover Haggadah: "In every generation (our enemies) are constantly attempting to destroy us." We have taken responsibility for our destiny, we have established a state, created weaponry, and occupied territories. We are not victims. We are rulers and we have moral responsibility.


We too, the women, are more and more occupying positions of power that obligate us to repay our moral bill. Gone is the age in which we can only speak of our exodus from slavery to freedom. Some women have already been partially or wholly freed from enslavement. And we, those not enslaved, must show ourselves morally challenged by our newly won power.


'Abuse from the ruler' – and I am the ruler

The text that Hebrew University professor Rachel Elior posted this past week on her Facebook page is so correct and on point that it is best for me to quote it word for word: "'Shlitaliloot' is a wonderful phrase coined by the wise and praiseworthy Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, as translated by David Weinfeld, which can be applied accurately to the government actions yesterday in relation to African refugees being forcibly loaded by police onto buses, after they marched in the freezing cold from prison (The Saharonim (half-moons) Detention Center in the deceptive, moonstruck Hebrew of the government...) without allowing them to protest or demonstrate against the injustice that has been done to them and without anyone listening to their claims and pleas.


Our parents, grandfathers and grandmothers, friends and family were until recently persecuted refugees, hungry, and exhausted that knocked on locked doors and hardened hearts in the thirties and forties of the twentieth century, but maliciousness, then as today, uniformly ruled the world with power, violence, estrangement and arrogance, locks and chains, without the slightest trace of humanity compassion or understanding for the always justified will of the persecuted for a life of dignity, equality, justice, and freedom.


Kurt Tucholsky, the German-Jewish refugee who was desperate and pursued by the Nazi government said the quote carved in the walls at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum that would be appropriate to remind the Israeli government of morning and evening: "A country is not only what it does, but also what it tolerates."


And in the Beit Midrash of talkbacks

I assume that a few female friends were relieved when they discovered that Rabbi Ariel slightly backtracked and is slightly less excluding us, the women, and permits us occasionally to teach Torah in a house of prayer: "If the Torah lesson is not a part of the prayer service or a direct continuation of it, and the woman is properly dressed, it is permitted." Thanks. Now we can calm down. Now we can almost feel like people.


However in order to continue to distancing women from positions of power in the house of prayer, Rabbi Ariel enlists the help of Professor Nechama Leibowitz of blessed memory: "Nechama Leibowitz refused to teach Torah in the house of prayer at all, not even when there was no prayer service taking place, not even when there was no other suitable site available."


Rabbi Ariel's tactic here is an ancient and a well known one. Whoever had read the story of Sarah and Hagar, whoever has seen the movie 'Raise The Red Lantern', is familiar with it. The patriarchy sets women against each other in order to strengthen their own male rule.


Therefore I again consulted with my male and female friends from the group Religious Feminists Without a Sense of Humor to check the veracity of Rabbi Ariel's claim.


Nechama Leibowitz did in fact teach in the house of prayer, and she did not hesitate to teach from the men's section. She did not hesitate to teach an audience with men and women separated or undivided after the mechitzah, the dividing barrier, had been taken down.


The following are a few of the questions that my male and female friends from the group raised:


  1. Is it permitted in the name of "modesty" to distort history?
  2. Why doesn't Rabbi Ariel take personal responsibility for his desire to exclude women?!? Why is he suddenly in need of help from our master and teacher, professor Nechama Leibowitz of blessed memory?
  3. Nechama Leibowitz was born more than 100 ago and died more than 16 years ago. She may not have been a feminist. So what!?!


Shabbat Shalom!


Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas


Click here to read this article in Hebrew



פרסום ראשון: 12.20.13, 15:49
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