Don’t Forget the Women


Have you ever noticed in our Chumash the huge positive prejudice toward women?  It’s hard to miss – and yet there’s a wave of scholars and kibitzers who criticize us for our denigration of the female species.

A silly judgment that ignores the surrounding world of 2000 B.C.E and the cultural judgment that women were chattel. Into this storm of injustice, Judaism introduced the notion that Eve and her sisters were not like sheep or goats, as was the view of pagan nations among whom we lived. According to their primitive mores, the two top professional opportunities were scrubwoman and Temple prostitute. Pagan women encountered in the antique annals of the time compare poorly to our aggressive matriarchs and others such as Deborah, Hulda, Yael, and Judith.

To restate simply, the Tanach and its attitudes must be judged in its time – not by today’s. You must not expect a smart young lady to crash through the ceiling, imposed by the world’s culture and build the Temple or lead the Israelites into battle. Amazons they were not. And ceilings were steel, not glass.

To revive an old but apt expression, generally they were mothers in Israel”. And consider their role as opposed to the patriarchs. When it comes to plain ol’ honesty and goodness, I’d take Jacob’s Rachel and Leah over Jacob any day of the week: morally, behaviorally (is that not what pleased G-d?)

True, his mother Rebecca has a fleeting flirtation with deception as to Isaac’s inheritance, but we can forgive that since it’s motivated by maternal love.

And Miriam who guided us through the wilderness, certainly must have pleased G-d over Aaron, who had his weaknesses. Remember he had a fixation on golden calves when Moses was out of town negotiating with the celestial King of Kings.

And talk about Moses – our peerless leader whose morality is impeccable – the most saintly of the Pentateuchal cast.  Even Moses – if you compare him to Zipporah – has a bad day or two.  In fact, you might say that this woman – lauded by Torah – daughter of a Priest of Midian – not even a Jewess – has her moment of triumph. She saves the life of Moses when at the sight of a vengeful G-d, she abruptly circumcises their son.  This must be the most mysterious, enigmatic series of verses in our holy text.   G-d seeks to kill Moses? (Why?  Because he didn’t circumcise Gershom, say most scholars.)  

Remember he had a killer job.  After all, he had to satisfy our stiff-necked ancestors. Constant meetings, tense parlays with Pharaoh, and meetings with the Boss himself – you didn’t want to be late for that appointment! Gershom’s circumcision? Maybe next week.  Zipporah, in the midst of this encounter, grabs a sharp flint and performs the job of the Mohel and flings the foreskin at “his” feet.  Whose feet?  Moses?  Or an anthropomorphic G-d?  “You are a husband of blood,” she shrieks.  Zipporah saves the day.  A most puzzling passage, which scholars have indigestibly chewed upon for years.  But our present concern is to point out the omnipotent role of women in our bible. And here is a significant example. Without Moses to guide them, our leaderless ancestors may have ended up in Sudan. Certainly not a land of milk and honey. And some commentators say Moses chose Zipporah because she was of a desert tribe who knew the Sinai.

Throughout our canon, we have women represented.  We have the sons of Jacob and we have his single daughter – Dinah. We meet Ruth the Moabite and her unswerving loyalty to her mother-in-law, clearly a text asking for tolerance – even to Israel’s enemies. And let’s not forget heroines like Yael and Judith and the prophetesses like Deborah who basically judged the fledgling nation. We value our women. May it continue.

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