'Beshalach': Lift up your voice with strength
In this week's Torah portion, Miriam leads women and they sing and dance in conjunction with men. Perhaps rabbis who exclude women would be so kind as to reconsider their self-righteous determination that all matters of holiness require separation of sexes
Miriam's Torah portion
"Beshalach" is the weekly Torah portion of the prophetess Miriam. This is one of the few portions that even before my hands land on the keyboard, I know what they will create: A song of praise for women's song, a song of praise for men who are not intimidated by women's song and dance, a song of praise for freedom, for the possibility of raising our voices loud, a song of praise for the covenants between women and men.
Much shorter, but no less aggressive
The only line in Miriam's song is the first line in Moses' "Song of the Sea." It is likely that Miriam answers Moses' and the men's song, and it is likely that she is leading a short and powerful song facing the women. Either way, the content of both songs is identical – praise and gratitude to God for the drowning of the Egyptians at sea.
I do not judge the nation of slaves for their schadenfreude. I ask to point out that this unrestrained happiness equally belongs to women and men. It is possible, and apparently correct, to speak of the differences that are the result of different life and educational circumstances. However it is dangerous and unnecessary to speak of "essential" differences between the sexes. Miriam is proof that women are capable of being no less cruel than men.
If this weren't proof enough, we are invited to browse the corresponding Haftarah (public ritual reading from the biblical prophets) for Torah portion "Beshalach" with its character Deborah, who also presents a female character who rejoices in battle.
But she is singing. She is singing!
Miriam leads the women and they are singing and dancing in conjunction with the men. Perhaps the rabbis who exclude women would be so kind as to reconsider their self-righteous determination that all matters of holiness require separation of the sexes, and about the "weakness" of men who are unable to restrain themselves at the sight of singing and dancing women.
God was occupied with separating the sea into two halves, and He chose not to occupy Himself with constructing mechitzot, dividing walls separating men from women in prayer, at the Red Sea's end. The women and men stood side by side and praised God with hymns and dance.
"They say it was joyful here before I was born... Could it be that this is over?" (A verse from the song "Could it Be that this Is Over?" written by Israeli poet Yehonatan Geffen, which criticizes misrepresenting the past).
A prophetess, but less so...
This week's Torah portion is the only place in the Torah where Miriam is presented as a prophetess. The fashion in which she is presented awakens bewilderment at two surprises. "And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron..." (Exodus 15:20)
The first is since when has Miriam been a prophetess? And if she has been a prophetess all along, why is she mentioned with that title only here? The second surprise is why the biblical narrator chooses to mention Miriam's family connection specifically to Aaron.
An early Midrash that appears several times in rabbinic literature resolves both of these issues with the help of some expansive rabbinic lore on Miriam's childhood (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Beshalach, parasha 10): "From where can we find that Miriam was a prophetess? From when she said to her father, 'You are destined to beget a son that will save Israel from the hand of Egypt.' Immediately thereafter: 'And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived, and bore a son...' (Exodus 2:1-2) 'And when she could not longer hide him...' (Exodus 2:3) – her father rebuked her: 'My daughter, where is your prophecy?' She held steadfast in her prophecy as it is said: 'And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be done to him...'"
Ancient feminist criticism
As stated, the Midrash's author sends us back to the days of Miriam's childhood. Much Rabbinic lore is connected with the difficult days of Pharaoh's evil decrees. According to several traditions Miriam's father was the leader of the enslaved Jewish community, and as an act of leadership in view of Pharaoh's evil decrees, decided to divorce his wife in order to avoid bringing children into the world that had a death sentence for Hebrew boys.
Little Miriam reproaches her father with an ancient feminist rebuke (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12A): "Father, your decree is harsher than Pharaoh's. Pharaoh only decreed against male babies, while you have decreed against the male and the female babies!" Her father accepted her rebuke and thus baby Moses came to the world.
In our original Midrash, Miriam acts as a prophetess and promises her father that the birth will bear blessed fruit. Amram, who follows after his daughter's prophecy, rebukes her when it becomes clear that they will not be able to continue protecting the child. Miriam, portrayed in the Midrash as a determined and independent girl, is not shaken and even continues in her prophecy. Miriam follows the baby, watching from afar to see what will happen to him. The author of the Midrash does not see in this watching from afar an act of fear or an attempt to rescue the child. Rather it is an act demonstrating clear and confident knowledge, prophecy, that what needs to happen will, and that Moses will be saved from death.
Women's regular enterprise
It seems that the brief verses in Torah portion "Beshalach" that present Miriam as a prophetess offer us an alternative to the main biblical narrative. These verses position Miriam as a leader of women parallel (even if not equal in her standing) to Moses. Specifically Aaron is absent from the position of leadership.
A similar story of the centrality of Miriam's leadership briefly flickers out of a verse from the book of Micah (Micah 6:4): "For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of bondage, and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam." But the tradition that considers Miriam as a central leader is pushed to the periphery. So marginalized, she does not continue to function in the central narrative of wilderness stories.
Miriam the prophetess is diverted from the main biblical story. However, because the erasers of female leadership did not completely succeed at erasing her character, she peeks out from behind the cracks in the biblical story. She is fortunate enough to be remembered in history as a prophetess who had in her childhood one really big moment.
Moreover, Miriam's big moment as a prophetess was a moment that she made it possible for the real leader, Moses, to burst forth into the world. This beautiful piece of rabbinic lore on Miriam's bold childhood resembles a bouquet of flowers sent to a betrayed women.
Despite this, this week she is singing, she is dancing, and she is leading. If only on Shabbat at houses of prayer women would be invited to dance and sing to honor her memory.
In the beit midrash of talkbacks
There is nothing like personal testimony that comes from the heart to really touch the heart. As a follow up to last week's column that dealt with the exclusion of women behind the mechitzah in the house of prayer, I bring here two talkback responses, two personal testimonies of women that moved me. Thank you both for replying and sharing.
Talkback 70: "I am a conventional Orthodox woman, even live in the more conservative realm of the knitted skullcaps (that identify their wearers as national- religious Zionists that approximately correspond to modern Orthodoxy in the US), but in my heart - I am in another place. At the beginning of my 20s (and that was a long time ago), as a result of the influence of the high school at which I studied (Pelech in Jerusalem) and close, personal exposure to the Conservative Movement, I developed a religious feminist consciousness, but I did not have the courage to act on it... Among the women who attend a completely gender separated house of prayer there are three groups of women: The first that believe with all their heart that this is how things need to be after they have deeply explored the subject (and Rabbi Rafi thinks all Orthodox women are this type), others who can't even conceive that any other arrangement is possible (and they are apparently the majority), and the third group, those that don't have the strength to rebel."
Hila from central Israel writes in talkback 64: "I am a religious women who does not self-identify with any specific denomination, and I very much appreciate and applaud the feminist struggle that in my eyes is part of the process for repairing the world. On the other hand, I personally feel comfortable in traditional houses of prayer behind the mechitzah (perhaps this is a matter of personality) and the comparison of this gender division with separating away children with Down Syndrome is a severe mistake:
"1) The separation in a house of prayer comes from a different place. Their equation is incorrect. 2) The equation upsets the still deliberating reader, and prevents him from being attentive to the great truth that is behind the striving for equality (just as the comparison of many things to the Holocaust upsets Holocaust survivors).
"One also needs to understand that there are struggles that will take years, and patience is needed, and seeing what is happening in the field (including the fact that there are women who are not bothered by the separation). It is important that Orthodox houses of prayer without mechitzot are recognized (I think there are some like this in Jerusalem), so that people have the possibility of choosing, not in order to completely eliminate people's need, both men's and women's, to maintain modesty. If the struggle will contain an element of dialogue, of the other side's perspective, the more conservative one, its success will be much greater."
Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas
Click here to read this article in Hebrew