Prophetess Deborah’s Zionist Wake Up Call

In the Zionist movement, the Bible played a pivotal role as a book that validated the ideals of Zionism rather than as a holy scripture. It was the book that testified to the Jewish nation’s ownership of the land and envisioned its return to the land. Most of all, it provided the inspiration for national revival and the revival of ideals such as an exemplary society, the Hebrew language and the struggle for the homeland.

It is not surprising that the holiday of the giving of the Torah, one of the three pilgrimage festivals, received a modern Zionist interpretation that is not detached from the biblical source but definitely focused it on the additional Zionist ideal of working the land.

This year we have chosen to focus the section devoted to Torah learning to a search for the great Zionists who people its pages and the pages of the prophets and the scriptures. #ZionFromTorah – a discourse on biblical characters who paved the way for Zionism; whose actions provided inspiration for builders of the country and for all of us living in Israel and the Diaspora, as their followers.

Within the framework of this search, it is easy to mention names such as Abraham the Patriarch, Moses Rabenu or Joshua the Conqueror. But I would like to point out the contribution of female biblical heroines; I therefore have chosen to focus on Deborah the prophetess, an outstanding leader, who I believe constitutes a great inspiration for the Zionist organization.

In a speech given on the 1st of March, 1951, at the end of an officer’s course at the army base of Tzrifin, David Ben Gurion referred to the figure of Deborah. He said “from the time of our forefathers through the times of the Hasmoneans, Deborah has been an awe-inspiring figure of the superior woman, endowed with many qualities, rare and magnificent in both men and women: Vision, courage, leadership, prophesy, commandership, poetry and generosity.”

Photo © Ben-Burion University

So, who was Deborah and what was her story?

Deborah is mentioned in the Book of Judges, in the period during which Jabin, King of Hazor, reigned in Israel, represented by the commander of his army, Sisera. The tribes of Israel were exposed to a number of atrocities. Deborah, who was the judge of Israel at the time, received a divine decree to initiate a war against Jabin. To do so, she enlisted Barak ben Avinoam as a military leader, and after he hesitated, she took the lead, showing self confidence and great courage. She promised to come with him to the battlefield, whilst rebuking him for the fact that “the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman” (Judges, 4:9).

It is difficult not to wonder why the Book of Judges tells us the story of the first woman in history to who was commander in chief. If she was indeed the person to pave the road, provide Barak with the strategy for fighting in Nahal Kishon and instill in him confidence in his success, were not these the very qualities required of a commander sending her troops to battle?

Deborah Under The Palm Tree by Adriene Cruz

Opinions vary. The sages, were apparently unable to stomach the qualities of a woman in such a position, as opposed to modern commentators, such as David Ben Gurion. This issue naturally communicates with the current discourse in Israel on the position of women in the army and their abilities as soldiers, officers and prime ministers. Possibly, it is the Bible that holds the key to the riddle – or at least provides the inspiration,.

In an attempt to understand the essence of Deborah’s leadership, it is interesting to delve into her victory song, after Israel had prevailed in battle over Sisera. The song’s messages and her own definition of her role in the proceedings. With your permission, I will refer to several quotes from the Song of Deborah: Hear, O kings, give ear, O princes; I, to the Lord I shall sing, I shall sing to the Lord, the God of Israel. (Judges 5:3)

As a spiritual leader, the song naturally opens with a tribute to God, whose power and superiority she praises. The story of the battle and the victory are told from the personal angle of a prophet giving thanks to God. However, Deborah proves her own strength and position also in additional contexts.

  • Why do you sit between the borders, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? At the divisions of Reuben, (there are) great searchings of heart (Judges, 5:16).

Let us not forget that first and foremost, Deborah is a judge. As such, she represents justice and morality for the people. Therefore, her song is replete with praise for the heroes who volunteered to fight and were rewarded with the help of God. Some would say that the ability to cooperate and the ability to share achievements and recognize the contribution of one’s partners is a feminine quality. But Deborah is also very capable of confronting and holding to account those who do not meet her expectations and did not contribute their fair share. As a true leader, she even rebukes the tribes who chose not to participate in the fighting, such as the tribes of Reuben, Dan and Asher.

  • Blessed above women shall be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite… (Judges 5:24).

Deborah proves her potency as a politician who cherishes life; when the the people turn to her, she is quick to “give credit” to the allies under her leadership: Barak ben Avinoam and Yael, the wife of the Kenite. Thus, she both thwarts those who would challenge her, and teaches the people an important lesson in humble leadership. As an added bonus, she even breaks an ancient stigma and replaces rivalry between women in key positions with sharing credit – a true prophetess in her own town.

And what about just a little self glorification? These days, we are accustomed to hearing our leaders boast in their speeches that they were “the first to identify”…. Well, it would seem that this tendency was not lacking in the time of the Bible, and not even in the song of the first female commander-in-chief. “until I Deborah arose; I arose as a mother in Israel” (Judges, 5:7). The prophetess does not skip over her own contribution to the redemption of the people and the point at which she led to a change. The moment when Deborah takes active steps to put to an end the suffering and humiliation of her people is a turning point against Sisera. And she insists on taking credit, apparently in the knowledge that – as a woman – her contribution will be forgotten, her story minimized and commentators such as Rashi would dare to claim that due to her smugness, the prophesy was taken from her, as if the Bible is not filled with men with superiority complexes.

In his speech, Ben Gurion regrets that the Bible did not share with us many more details of Deborah’s story and did not describe how “a woman was able to reach such a position of honor and responsibility at the times of the Judges”.  Rather, the Bible let it suffice to state laconically that the people of Israel came before her to be judged “and she sat under the palm tree of Deborah, between Ramah and Beth-el, in the mountain of Ephraim; and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment (Judges 4:5).

In my opinion, this is a call for historical Tikkun – correction – that only Zionism can accomplish for the Jewish nation. If we have sinned by minimizing the contribution of women in leadership roles or have omitted considering their historical position in the dregs of society, we now have the power, the knowledge and the means to correct the wrongdoing. Deborah the prophetess can be considered a great Zionist, one who led her people to take their destiny in their own hands and to end the atrocities that befell them. Alongside Deborah, there is a long line of Jewish women who led the way in fostering changes in our nation. It is high time that their stories be told fully, in all the grandeur and glory they well deserve. Praise! Praise! Deborah. Praise! Praise! Utter a song (Judges 5:12). Deborah emphasizes the divine decree, the inner call or the call of the people to lead a change and to redeem them. In this spirit, I call  upon every woman in the Jewish nation, in Israel and in the Diaspora, to arise, to praise, to sing their inner songs and thus to facilitate the changes you wish to see. If the Bible provides historical validation for Zionism and the inspiration for a well-lived Jewish life in our times, then let us find in Deborah the symbol and the proof of the abilities that lie hidden in each of us and in our power that exists in us to lead a change.

Gusti Yehoshua Braverman, One out of 2 woman head of departments in the World Zionist Organization. Photo © South African Zionist Federation
About the Author
Gusti Yehoshua-Braverman the Head of the Department for Diaspora Activities at the World Zionist Organization. She is a member of the WZO Executive and the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors. The former Associate Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, Gusti has a B.A. in Social Work, a M.A. in Communications and is a certified organizational consultant.