Distinctive message about women comes courtesy of Exodus


Exodus 1:1–6:1

Isaiah 27:6–28:13, 29:22-23 (for Ashkenazim)

Jeremiah 1:1–2:3 (for Sephardim)

Disturbing to many, confusing to others, the recent headlines regarding the ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel might draw one to believe in women’s inferiority in traditional Judaism. But this week’s Torah portion offers a different message.

The Book of Exodus opens with the Children of Israel in Egypt. A new pharaoh has risen who knows not Joseph. The Hebrews, meanwhile, have multiplied and strengthened, and the Egyptians feel threatened. There are new rules and decrees, including an instruction to the midwives to kill all baby boys.

When the Hebrew midwives who “feared God …  kept the Children alive” (Exodus 1:17), Pharaoh instructs all his people to kill the Hebrews’ baby boys. This time there is no objection. Just like when other atrocities have been committed throughout history, it wasn’t only the crazy whim of some ruthless ruler but also the compliance of his people.

Following the midwives, we meet Miriam. According to the Midrash, the older sister of Moses saw her parents living apart in order to avoid the chance of becoming pregnant and losing their child to the Pharaoh. She scolded them and encouraged them to get back together: “The Pharaoh decreed only against the boys, but you decreed against all Jewish continuity!”

It is Miriam who watches over her newly born brother’s basket, floating on the river. And it is Pharaoh’s daughter, whom the Midrash names Batya, the daughter of God (rather than daughter of Pharaoh), who finds him, draws him out and raises him in the palace.

The opening of the Book of Exodus is the story of insightful, kind and brave Jewish women, without whom the survival, redemption and continuity of our people would not have been possible.

The feminist in me loves this storyline. Then again, Judaism is not feminism, and neither is it its opposite, so I read on.

When Moses grows up, he goes to “check on his brothers” and, behold, he sees an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew man. “Looking here and there, and seeing that there is no one … [Moses] hit the Egyptian and ducked him in the sand.” However, the next day, when he is about to intervene in a similar situation, he is confronted with: “Who made you judge around here? Are you going to kill me like you killed that Egyptian?”

Wait. How did anyone know? Didn’t we just read that there was no one around?

Well, turns out, not exactly. The Hebrew says “ein ish,” meaning there was “no man” or “no one” around, but the biblical “ish” is not a “man” in the physical, gender sense we understand it today. It can even be an angel, like the “ish” that Jacob struggled with, and in later times, it is more like a mensch, a good, decent, caring human being.

The Rabbis picked up on that in Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) and taught: “bemakom she’ein anashim, heye ata ish” — “where there is no man, you must be one.” Surely, they didn’t mean that where there are no males, women should undergo a sex operation (and no, I don’t believe the Torah or Talmud speak to males alone). But rather, where there isn’t a good, decent person who steps up to do the right thing, you are responsible; you’re “it.”

You might be Moses; you might be Miriam. It’s not an either-or, zero-sum game. Both are our heroes. Both are “it.” If we buy anything else, we ignore and belittle the Torah’s message.

Until a couple of hundred years ago, we were all just “Jews” without such distinct adjectives. Now we have walls so high between us that we can barely see each other. Here in the Bay Area, we pride ourselves on being progressive and pluralistic. Yet, dare I ask, how many of us have a close friend — someone we value, listen to and love — who is wearing a slightly different kippah, not to mention, God forbid, a black hat, head cover or, alternatively, no cover at all?

Our path is more complex than can be easily captured in a few slogans and flashy articles. Let us not fall for these traps. Even when challenged — especially when challenged — we’re called to look around, rise up and be an “ish.”

Michal Kohane is the director of the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. She has served in leadership roles throughout Northern California and holds advanced degrees in studies of Israel, psychology and education. She can be reached at [email protected]