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Naomi Graetz

Women’s Voices Then and Now: Shabbat Shirah

My father and family October 1973

I would like to dedicate this week’s blog to my father, Yehezkel ben Yakov Lebowitz, who died 50 years ago on the18th of Shevat and who listened to all the voices of the women in his family.

WOMEN’S VOICES IN THE BIBLE

The first woman’s voice we hear in the Bible is that of Eve’s when she speaks to the snake and then tells God that it was the snake who tempted her to eat from the tree. And God tells Adam that because he listened to his wife’s voice כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֘עְתָּ֮ לְק֣וֹל אִשְׁתֶּ֒ךָ֒ he will have to toil at hard labor for the rest of his life and then will die (Genesis 3:17-19). Listening to a woman’s voice has repercussions. Listening to women’s voices continues in the early stages of the bible: When Sarai is unable to bear a child, she tells Abram to consort with her handmaiden so that she will be like a surrogate mother and Abram listens to her וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אַבְרָ֖ם לְק֥וֹל שָׂרָֽי (Genesis 16: 3). After Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Sarah feels threatened by Hagar and demands that Abraham send her and Ishmael away. Even though Abraham loves his first-born son God tells Abraham whatever that Sarah tells him to do, to listen to her voice: כֹּל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֹּאמַ֥ר אֵלֶ֛יךָ שָׂרָ֖ה שְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹלָ֑הּ (Genesis 20: 12). And then a few chapters later, it will be Rebekkah telling her son Jacob to listen to her voice, when he protests cheating Esau from Isaac’s blessing:

“If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.” But his mother said to him, “Your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say שְׁמַ֥ע בְּקֹלִ֖י  go fetch them for me” (Genesis 27:12-13).

MIRIAM’S VOICE

And this week we finally hear Miriam’s voice.

Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, picked up a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drum. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to יהוה, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea (Exodus 15:20-21).

It is true that Moses’s sister appears earlier in the narrative, but she is never mentioned by name until this week’s parsha. She is not even mentioned in the genealogies we read two weeks ago: “Amram took into his [household] as wife his father’s sister Jochebed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses; and the span of Amram’s life was 137 years” (Exodus 6:3). To be fair, she is included in the genealogies in Bamidbar. “The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt; she bore to Amram Aaron and Moses and their sister Miriam” (Numbers 26:59). When she is mentioned in parshat beshalach by name, ironically, she is identified as Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister! This despite the heroic actions of the sister who saved Moses. Why isn’t she mentioned by name here? Is it because she stood afar to see what would become of the boy?   וַתֵּתַצַּ֥ב אֲחֹת֖וֹ מֵרָחֹ֑ק לְדֵעָ֕ה מַה־יֵּעָשֶׂ֖ה לֽוֹ׃ ( Exodus 2:4) On the other hand she was resourceful enough to immediately suggest to Pharaoh’s daughter that she bring her mother to nurse the baby. In contrast to the sister with no name, the midwives (Shifrah and Puah) are mentioned by name. She is mentioned four more times in the Bible. In Numbers 12, where she is identified as Aaron’s sister who faults their brother Moses for marrying the Cushite woman. And then she is punished with leprosy for speaking up. She does not appear again until she dies and is buried in Numbers 20. Later on in Deuteronomy 24: 8-9 she serves as a warning for generations:

Remember what your God did to Miriam זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֧ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֛ה יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לְמִרְיָ֑ם  on the journey after you left Egypt (Deuteronomy 24: 9).

Presumably this has to do with the punishment of leprosy in Numbers 12. There is one final mention of Miriam and her siblings in the prophet Micah:

I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (Micah 6:4).

The little snippet of one stanza at the end of the lengthy song by Moses (Exodus 15:1-18) is not just an abridgement or summary. It has been argued that there is a Song of Miriam and that it belongs to traditions of women singing songs of praise and glory to their returning warriors. It is possible that this week’s haftarah, the long Song of Deborah (Judges 5) was chosen as a commentary to hint that the song which is usually attributed to Moses was actually sung by a woman. There is after all, a long tradition of women’s contributions (the little lady behind the scenes) being taken over by men. In the midrash our sages put down women like Miriam and Deborah, when they speak up, for overstepping their proscribed roles of helpmeets to their menfolk. Miriam is accused of being a gossiper and Deborah of being a wasp (with a sting). Women who speak up are aggressive; men who do so, are assertive.

STEALING WOMEN’S VOICES AND/OR BELITTLING THEIR CONTRIBUTION

What started with Miriam continues today. Even Deborah played into this when she threatened Barak who did not want to go to war against the Canaanites unless she went to the battlefield with him:

But Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; if not, I will not go.” “Very well, I will go with you,” she answered. “However, there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for then GOD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh (Judges 4: 8-9).

What could be worse than a woman getting glory in wartime!!! Does this sound familiar? God may not always want to hear women’s voices (as was the case with Miriam), but men who ignore women’s voices do so at their peril. What happened before October 7th is the tragic example of what can happen when women are not taken seriously, when there is a total disregard toward warnings voiced by female soldiers, such as was done before the invasion of Hamas. This aroused considerable public anger. Women, like Deborah (and Yael who kills General Sisera) can be warriors and we saw examples of this when an all-female tank company, established in 2020, chased down dozens of terrorists during the October 7 rampage. Today, it is women who are in the vanguard of all the protest movements. They (we) are finally making the world see that there has been an ongoing war waged on women, ironically on those, like Vivian Silver z”l, who was involved in Women Waging for Peace.

And yet, women’s voices and visions are still being overlooked. Just the other day at the Oscar nominations, there was again a case of déjà vu when once again a woman director’s contribution was overlooked, when Greta Gerwig was not nominated for best director even though Barbie was nominated for best picture. This of course reminds us of Barbra Streisand who has never been acknowledged by the Academy as a director, even when her movies were nominated as best picture.

SHABBAT SHIRAH: BARBRA AND DEBBIE FRIEDMAN

I have a special interest in Barbra Streisand because I just finished reading her autobiography, My Name is Barbra. It was not a short read, to say the least: the written book is 970 pages and the audiobook which Streisand reads is more than 48 hours! Yet I was enthralled by the book and its message. First, it is very “in your face” which I love. It seems to be very honest and a “tell it all” book. An editor could easily have cut the elaborate descriptions of her clothing and of the comfort food she seems to be constantly eating, but then it would not be in her voice. As I was reading the book, I was struck by her consumerism, her need to buy everything in sight—to lavishly decorate her homes—possibly to compensate for her early childhood of neglect. However, she stresses how her’s was an independent woman’s voice, and that she had to pay dearly for it—the independence and her being a woman.

The book is also a very Jewish one; it is very shtetl like; everyone knows everyone else; in the entertainment business, they are all connected. She is a proud Jewish woman and late in life, she learned more about her heritage when she delved into research for her movie Yentl, which she directed. She loves being Jewish and shares her nostalgic memories of typical Jewish food. Despite this, she constantly mentions her love of Chinese and other treif food (ham, bacon, lobster, clams etc.) without any sense that this might alienate her Jewish readers. “I would go to the Gentile [delis] and order my favorite… a roast pork sandwich with mayonnaise on soft white bread. Delicious.” She was, and is, a fighter for all sorts of unpopular political causes. She was taken advantage of by many unscrupulous men in the movie business; she constantly had to prove herself in a men’s world. And worse, credit was stolen from her (as a writer, consultant, producer and even director). Despite the fact that she was known for her “voice”, the boy’s club doesn’t like to hear women when they try to run things—even when they succeed—or especially when they succeed.

DEBBIE FRIEDMAN

There is one more woman who should be mentioned in my blog today, and that is Debbie Friedman (1951-2011). Her yahrzeit is shabbat shira and her voice rings out in every Jewish home during the Havdalah service. Her homage to the biblical Miriam is sung today at almost every woman’s seder in the world.

And the women dancing with their timbrels
Followed Miriam as she sang her song
Sing a song to the One whom we’ve exalted
Miriam and the women danced and danced the whole night long
And Miriam was a weaver of unique variety
The tapestry she wove was one which sang our history
With every strand and every thread she crafted her delight
A woman touched with spirit, she dances toward the light

When Miriam stood upon the shores and gazed across the sea
The wonder of this miracle she soon came to believe
Whoever thought the sea would part with an outstretched hand
And we would pass to freedom and march to the promised land

And Miriam the prophet took her timbrel in her hand
And all the women followed her just as she had planned
And Miriam raised her voice in song
She sang with praise and might
We’ve just lived through a miracle
We’re going to dance tonight

Her words and voice have brought many Jewish people back into the fold and are a balm to us today in a world where there is no clear direction. Would that all women stand up and that their voices ring out with power and that they be heard. It is time for men to sit down and listen and learn.

Happy singing on Shabbat Shirah!

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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