Ever since I wrote my rabbinical thesis on The Expansion of Women’s Rights during the Period of the Mishnah, I have been aware of the extraordinary lengths the rabbis went to enhance the status of women in Jewish law. The Ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract provided economic security for the woman — unprecedented in human history — when the marriage ended through divorce or the husband’s death. It is hard to find a more significant advancement in women’s rights in legal history.
The Sages de facto eliminated the biblical procedure of Sotah ( the trial by ordeal for a suspected adulteress described in Number 5:11 ff) and the binding of a widow to her brother in-law by levirate marriage against her will (Deuteronomy 25:1-10). Although only the man can divorce the woman – not the other way around – in traditional Jewish law, the rabbis instituted important procedures whereby if the man did not live up to the provisions of the Ketubah by, for example, changing jobs without her consent, or moving without her agreement from a big city to a small town or vice versa, she could take him to court and force him to divorce her and pay the face value of the contract.
The laws they promulgated and the biblical interpretations they offered make our Tannaitic Sages heroes in the advancement in women’s status. But the attempts to redress society’s inherent misogyny do not have to wait for the rabbis. The Bible itself repeatedly exalts the status of women and demonstrates her superiority to her male counterpart.
Over and over again it is the biblical woman who gets and the man who is clueless. Eve has been maligned for generations for the so called fall of man, but really she is the heroine of the elevation of humanity. It was she not her husband who perceived that life in Eden-–while idyllic–was sterile and essentially without meaning. It was she who saw (Genesis 3:6) ונחמד העץ להשכיל the tree of knowledge was desirable as a source of wisdom; she took of its fruit and ate.
Other examples abound. Rebecca is a prime mover; Isaac is passive. Judah evolves from the man who sold his brother to the man who would not leave his other brother behind because of the tutelage of his daughter-in-law Tamar. Hannah is savvy and aware, but her husband Elkanah and Eli the high priest of Israel just don’t get it. Vashti, Esther, Ruth, Deborah, Yael…the list of female heroes goes on and on.
Moses is unquestionably the Bible’s most important figure, but he only becomes our liberator, lawgiver and leader because of the intervention of no fewer than six women: Shifrah, Puah, Miriam, Yocheved, Pharaoh’s daughter and Zipporah. Through their stories and commentaries the rabbis of the Midrash add luster to their roles. There are the wonderful midwives, whose actions rebut across the millennium, the cowardly Nazi war criminals who tried to excuse themselves by saying “I had no choice. I was just following orders.” Shifrah and Puah received orders too, from their boss, their king, the most powerful man in the world who was worshipped as a god. “When you help the Hebrew women give birth and you see it is a boy, kill it.” (Exodus 1:16) Shifrah and Puah teach us all that we must never just follow orders. We must interpose our conscience and our human ability to determine what is right and what is wrong before we follow any orders.
Moses’ mother Yocheved refuses to knuckle under to Pharaoh’s vile decree that every Hebrew baby boy be drowned in the Nile, and Miriam, his sister, watches and with perfect timing runs up to Pharaoh’s daughter when she finds the baby and offers to provide a nursemaid for him.
The rabbis of the Midrash enhance Miriam’s role. A Talmudic tale (B.Sotah 12A) teaches that Amram, Moses’ father, was the leader of the Hebrew laves at that time. In order to avoid the pain of Pharaoh’s cruel decree, Amram ordered all the Hebrew men to divorce their wives, but Miriam convinced her father not to give in to Egyptian oppression.
By all logic as a “good” daughter, loyal subject of her King and worshipper like the Egyptians of her father as a god, she would have simply tipped Moses’ basket over and drowned him. But she too answered to a higher authority. Pharaoh’s daughter is unnamed in the Bible, but the Sages call her, “Bityah”, “”the daughter of the Almighty.” (Leviticus Rabbah 1:3)
Finally there is a strange but interesting passage in Exodus 24-26 that tells of Zipporah circumcising their son after Moses had neglected to do so. It is a passage the rabbis could have interpreted any way they wish, but the rabbis (Shmot Rabbah 5:8) credit Zipporah with saving Moses life by her quick thinking and decisive action!
These and the many others like them are the stories we Reform Jews must tell if we want to be effective agents in the ongoing struggle for gender equality in Judaism and in our world.
The task of our generation is twofold: 1. To interpret the Bible to all of those who will hear our voices and/or read our words to give women the enormous credit they are due but do not receive in traditional circles, and 2. to continue the forward progress in women’s rights begun by the Sages of the Mishnah until women and men are held in completely equal regard.