Ladies in Leadership: From Tanach, Israeli Politics and Foreign Affairs

Ever since elementary school, I knew I was passionate about representing Israel in a significant way, my love of the country played a huge role in my life even then. I remember completing my fourth-grade book report on Golda Meir, Israel’s first female Prime Minister, and feeling so inspired writing about such a strong and powerful woman. We were asked to dress up as the person we wrote about in our report, and I remember instantly falling in love with the matching suit jacket and skirt my mother bought me for the occasion.

Over the years, after learning more about Israel, I discovered the lack of female politicians and diplomats in the country’s history, even in the past few decades. You might say, well Israel is a young country, but even relative to its size the numbers don’t add up. Since its establishment in 1948, the state of Israel has had only one female Prime Minister, and at the time the first Knesset was sworn in it only included 11 women. Additionally, the Israel Democracy Institute published research this past year stating that women constitute less than 30% of all Knesset members and the percentage of female cabinet members in the Israeli government has never been more than 24%.

Nevertheless, strides have been made over the years in the area of Diplomacy where, two years ago the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a virtual “Women in Diplomacy Network ” event. Together with the governments of the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain, the all-female panelists discussed and stressed the need for women in promoting peace and security in the Middle East and in the rest of the world.

Furthermore, the UN Security Council has cultivated a resolution advocating for stronger female involvement in Diplomacy. On October 31st, 2000, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325 which reaffirmed the important role of women in peace negotiations, conflict resolution, peacekeeping, and humanitarian response. The resolution stressed equal participation, and that women must be involved in all efforts in maintaining and promoting peace and security. The resolution urged all UN security initiatives and efforts to involve women and incorporate a different gender perspective. Lastly, the resolution also called for all parties of the UN to specially take interest in creating measures that protect girls and women from gender-based violence and abuse in situations of armed conflict.

We’ve come so far as a society in understanding the potential and power of a female voice. In the diplomatic sector, we’ve facilitated a change in perception. There are many female leaders and ambassadors serving all over the world, continuing to change the status quo and making a tremendous impact. But with regards to our beloved country, there is a lot of work we still have to do. Women constituting less than 30% of the Knesset is not enough. It is wonderful to see that we are not the same country with the same Knesset that only had 11 women, but we have 120 seats in our legislative branch, and I’d like to think that at least half of these seats can be filled by women.

The topic of female leadership is vast and one that appears often in Tanach and biblical text. Parshat Shemot tells us the story of a leader, beginning with the birth of Moshe. Moshe’s journey is a path paved by the remarkable and courageous women that stood by his side.

Firstly, Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, during the time of Pharaoh’s horrible decree to throw all Jewish-born boys into the Nile, had the courage to have a child, hide him, and create a plan to ensure his safety. She saved his life and in doing so ensured the future redemption of the Jewish people. But it doesn’t stop there, Miriam, his sister takes it upon herself to continually watch over him until he reached the safe hands of Pharaoh’s daughter. In the very first few months of his life, these three women recognized Moshe’s potential and defied Pharaoh’s decree endangering their lives for Moshe’s safety.

The Mifarshim (commentators) on the Tanach explain in detailed account Miriam’s astounding leadership ability. The midrash tells us that when Pharaoh decreed that every male Jewish baby boy would be drowned in the river, Amram, Moshe’s father, led the Jewish men to divorce their wives so that no children would be born. Amram seemingly decided that it wasn’t right to bring children into the world with a fifty percent chance that they’d be killed at birth. However, his daughter Miriam completely disagreed. Miriam argued with her father and persuaded him to change his mind telling him that his decree was worse than Pharaoh’s. That his decree affected only boys, but Amram’s behavior affected everyone, even in bringing baby girls into the world.

Parshat Shemot at first glance tells the origin story of Moshe, the remarkable leader of the Jewish people. But three women are greatly responsible for Moshe’s survival. Without Miriam, Yocheved, and Pharaoh’s daughter there would have been no leader for the Jewish people.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l expands on this very idea and writes that without these extraordinary women there would not have been a Moshe. He explains that Miriam and Yocheved, and Pharaoh’s daughter are three women who belong to a large collective of strong female role models throughout Jewish History. From biblical heroines like Ruth, and Esther, to religious scholars like Nechama Leibowitz to more secular women like Golda Meir and Anne Frank.

Rabbi Sacks continues, and asks a powerful question: if women are transcendent and symbols of such leadership and strength, how were they excluded from leadership roles within Jewish law? Sacks answers his question by explaining that women were excluded from both the kehuna “crown of priesthood” and the “crown of Kingship”. Priesthood went to Aaron and his sons, and leadership of the Jewish people went to David and his sons. These two roles Rabbi Sacks emphasizes were built on the principle of succession through male bloodlines. But the “crown of torah” women were not excluded from. There were prophets and prophetesses.

Rabbi Sacks offers a final point citing the “Binyan Av”, Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who highlights the difference between “samchut”, official authority, and “hanhagah”, actual leadership. He explains that leaders who hold positions of authority, CEOs, Prime Ministers and diplomats, may not be leaders at all if they have no followers and are unable to inspire and excite people. If a leader in a position of authority cannot garner a desire to emulate them, then he is not an actual leader. On the other hand, a leader is someone who may not have “samchut” an official position, but has great influence, is able to give advice, is admired by those that listen to him/her and seek out their help. Women who enter leadership roles in the torah community are adding a much-needed perspective. They are filling a void of women role models and enabling Jewish women to have someone to look up to and identify with. Rabbi Sacks finishes his point by citing Max Weber, the well-known German sociologist; “charismatic authority” as Weber phrased, can be attained without an office or a title. And such authority within a man and a woman can enable them to be an impactful leader.

The worlds of Israeli politics, Diplomacy, and Jewish religion surround my daily life. Seeing the common feminist thread in these three facets of my life fulfills me with purpose and passion. From understanding the power of the biblical heroine, to the importance of a female voice in the legislative branch of the Israeli government and an ambassador of Israel abroad, I am confident in my ability to affect change. In essence, female leadership is a concept that has been a part of Jewish heritage for many years. And in the year 2021 we have made tremendous progress and stride in changing the status quo. 30% is not such a terrible number, my wish is that in the coming years we see this number only increase and inspire a new generation of female leaders.

About the Author
Originally from NYC and now living in Jerusalem, Miriam Blum served as a tour guide in the Old City of Jerusalem for her National Service and worked In the Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Diplomacy Division. After completing both her BA and MA degrees in Communications and International Relations, Miriam currently works as a Communications and International Media Manager at Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center.