When you think Exodus you think Moses; towering figure, saviour, law-giver, leader. When you think Egyptian story, you think Aharon, high priest, man of compassion. When you think Exodus you may think only of the mighty men of that generation; the princes and leaders. But think again, because without the heroism of women there would have been no Moses, no Exodus, no Torah.
The disastrous story of the 12 spies which led to 40 years wandering in the desert was perhaps a result of who they were: כלם אנשים. The Torah says they were “all men” which prompts the 16th century commentator the Kli Yakar to retort: You know why they failed; there wasn’t one woman on the mission. Had they included women they would have had a very different outcome because the women ‘knew how to love the land of Israel, much more than the men’. In fact, if you read the Exodus story you realise not only the probable source of the Kli Yakar’s statement but also recognise that without six remarkable women (as suggested by Sacks and other scholars) the story wouldn’t have been.
Who were the six?
Yocheved: mother of Moshe. A woman whose courage and resourcefulness saves her son. She hides him from Pharaoh’s midwives and secret police constructing a safe water-proof cradle on the Nile.
Miriam: sister of Moshe. A woman whose initiative, caring and confidence saves her brother. She literally stands by him. According to the Midrash she actually urges her parents to bring a child into the dangerous world of totalitarian Egypt. And so Moses is born…
Pharaoh’s daughter: the princess, Batya, whose compassion and moral determination ensure Moshe’s and the people’s future. She defies her father’s orders and her servants advice. She doesn’t take the easy route of least resistance.
The two midwives: Shifra and Puah who refused to take part in crimes against humanity. Their civil disobedience and courage ensure the survival of the Jewish people. They could easily have claimed we are just following orders and killed the first born males.
Tzipporah: wife of Moshe who stands by, challenges and saves the life of her husband and preserves her family.
Last Sunday we celebrated the bat mitzvah of 24 girls at Caulfield Shule — one of our largest groups in years. They were taught by the talented Naomi Rubinstein who once again educated, informed and inspired the group with a wide ranging and experiential program. The program included a moving session with grandmothers, challah baking activity with the Dads under the guidance of grandparents Jeffrey and Sue Appel, a visit to the mikveh and learning sessions on Shabbat and Chagim. At the ceremony I was particularly moved by the mother-daughter introductions and the special bracha each mum chose to impart to their daughters. These were thoughtful and powerful in their simplicity and clarity and a strong message about the potential and possibilities for young Jewish women today.
To all bat mitzvah girls today, I would say: Don’t let anyone tell you women don’t belong in the great story of Jewish history. They may often be unrecorded, frequently unrecognised, but they are there. And you are lucky to be living in a community and society where women are valued. There may still be a way to go as the Me Too Movement and Handmaid’s Tale remind us. There is also still a way to go in the Jewish community and especially our Orthodox world. But look at the amazing global models from Jacinda Ardern to Cheryl Sandberg, Oprah to our Vic Governor Linda Dessau and pay attention to our local Jewish exemplars (including Linda). Go forward with confidence – the future belongs to you too!
In the Jewish world more and more women are becoming leaders. In our community JCCV, Zionism Australia and many other organisations have women at the helm. By happy coincidence this week’s Jewish News is dedicated to women in our community and the launch of the NCJW”s #MakeSpace ForHer campaign.
In Israel recently I sat with a group of Modern Orthodox rabbis and women from the Beit Hillel organisation — they were equal in knowledge and ability but the women have not yet been given the status they should be afforded. We need to increase the number of women participating at board and management levels at our shules and Orthodox organisations — we have only two women on our current shule board. We also need to encourage our Chareidi friends to enhance the participation of women.
One of the women at the meeting in Tel Aviv was Rabbanit Dr Chana Friedman. She is not only an educator at the Zeitlin GIirls High School, but also the founder and leader of the Yachad community in Tel Aviv. She deliberately chose to set up this Orthodox community in Tel Aviv as a model for a place of inclusion, the empowerment of women and the welcoming of LGBT individuals and couples. In her words: “The Holy One, blessed be He, can forgive us for our sins against him, but with all his greatness and abilities, he has no authority to make disappear the pain and injuries and sins that we have committed against other people. It doesn’t help even if those injuries and sins were done in the name of God.”
We are indeed fortunate to live in a time and place where we can recognise the fact that in the past we may have treated women without the respect and recognition they deserved not only as our mothers, wives and daughters but also as our leaders, thinkers and visionaries. Now is the time to make space for them. This will only make us richer and stronger as a community and as shapers of the future.