Strong, Savvy Biblical Women; Clueless Men

After my lecture on “Strong Biblical Women” in Bordesholm a woman came up to me and said, “You should write a book about what you just told us.”

I was very touched.

I am not ready to write a book on the subject, but I hope this essay is of interest.

In preparation for this lecture I asked my rabbinic colleagues in a closed forum on Facebook (due to strict confidentiality requirements of the site, I am not referring to any of them by name) to offer an example of a woman they would include if they were giving the lecture. Their suggestions were very helpful, and I am most grateful to them.

I began by offering a quotation that I have chosen to appear at the bottom of on every page on my web site: “Repeatedly in the Bible, it is the woman who ‘gets it’ and the man who is ‘clueless.’

I originally wrote those words in defense of Eve who, “has been maligned for generations for the supposed “fall of man” when in fact; she is – in my view –the heroine of “the elevation of humanity.”

(From Why the Kof? Getting the Best of Rabbi Fuchs?)

I chose to leave Eve and several other very strong women out of my lecture because of the Talmudic lesson I learned from my late Professor Samuel Sandmel many years ago: Tasafta mirubah, lo tasafta,” (B. Rosh Hashanah, 4b)which essentially means, “If you try to do too much, you end up doing nothing at all.”

In the course of a one-hour presentation, that was a vital point to remember.

I began, then, with Rebecca. One may certainly question the way she went about things, but one cannot deny that she had greater insight into what God needed in terms of an heir to the Covenant of Abraham than did her husband Isaac. She acted decisively on her instinct.

Because the story is complex and time was a factor, I did not delve into the character of Tamar and her impact on Judah in the Joseph Story. If I ever should write the book suggested to me, Tamar will receive lengthy treatment as she does in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. (WiIfM? FOiBN)

For time reasons as well, I did not delve, as several suggested I should, into the fascinating case of Zelophehad’s daughters. Their story marks a vital first step in establishing a woman’s right to inherit her family’s property.

For the same reason (and because they too are written about in WiIfM? FOiBN) I only briefly touched on the vital roles played by

six women who made it possible for Moses to stand before Pharaoh to demand the liberation of our people.

Because I was speaking to a church group in Germany I made one exception: I dealt at some length with the role of the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who defied Pharaoh’s decree to kill any Hebrew boys they helped birth. As I point out in WiIfM? FOiBN:

The example of Shiphrah and Puah stand as

a sharp rebuke for those who excuse their

ethical misdeeds with the claim they had no choice—they were simply following orders from their superiors.

Case in point: During the trial of Nazi war criminals

at Nuremburg, Germany, defendant after defendant

attempted to justify his action on the basis that he was just following orders. The courage of Shiphrah and Puah is timeless testimony that “just following orders” is no excuse.

 

(In the book I cite Nora Levin’s, z’l, example in The Holocaust, pp. 241-244, of the commander of Einsatzgruppe D, Otto Ohlendorf.)

 

I next spoke about Deborah from the book of Judges. In her time pagan Canaanite forces under the direction of Sisera were vexing Israelite settlements.  At that time there was no nation of Israel, just a loosely organized group of tribes and as individual entities, they were vulnerable to invasion.

Deborah successfully united the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali to thwart the incursions. She summoned Barak, a leading General, but he refused to lead the troops unless Deborah went with him into battle. She was a judge, military leader, prophet and poet, one of the Bile’s strongest characters of either gender.

I also mentioned Samson’s unnamed mother. She received God’s vision that she would bare a son who would begin to redeem the Israelites from the Philistines, but when she told her husband, he was sure they would die. But Manoah’s wife knew better. She was another example of a savvy woman with a clueless husband.

My next example was Hannah, Samuel’s mother. Compared to her Eli, the High Priest at Shiloh was a bumbling fool.

Five Megillot and three are about women.

There are five books of the Bible designated as Megillot(scrolls), Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations Ecclesiastes and Esther, and these are associated with Passover, Shavuot, Tisha B’Av, Sukkot and Purim respectively.

Three of the five Megillot are about very strong women. Purim celebrates the courage of Vashti and Esther. Song of Songs(as per the interpretation, I arrived at when studying Song of Songsin my D.Min program at Vanderbilt Divinity school with the Womanist scholar, Renita Weems) tells of a woman strong enough to resist the blandishments of King Solomon’s harem to follow her shepherd lover.

I concluded my talk with Ruth The story tells of Naomi’s faithfulness and Ruth’s loyalty and the reward she receives to become the great grandmother of King David. David, according to both Jewish and Christian traditions, is to be the ancestor of the Messiah.

Another woman I left out whom several of my colleagues suggested I include was Huldah the Prophetess, who exerted strong influence on King Josiah at the end of the seventh pre-Christian century. Because of my colleagues’ suggestions though I did read up on her and was able to include her in the answer to one of the questions from those who attended.

Again, I left out important women due to time limitations. Still I hope the examples of Rebecca, the six woman who saved Moses’ life, Deborah, Hannah, Samson’s mother, Vashti, Esther, the heroine of Song of Songs, Naomi and Ruth were sufficient to convince participants that far from being unimportant, many biblical women outshine the men around them in terms of leadership ability and perception of what it was God needed them to do. They are important roe models for young women today and an inspiration to all of us.

 

 

 

 

The Adult Issues of Purim

Many think of Purim as simply a time for groggers, costumes noise and merriment.  With all the frivolity and fun that we shall hopefully experience, it is easy to dismiss Purim as merely a fun holiday for the young and the young at heart, but Purim is much more.

The Purim story confronts the mature reader with vital philosophical questions about the place of women in society, the phenomenon of prejudice, and the very meaning of life itself.

Too seldom do we ponder the courage of Vashti, King Ahasueras‘ first wife. In the story, the world’s most powerful man commands her to display her beauty for his drunken friends, but she refuses. She is a worthy role model for our daughters. She is also a good jumping off point for a discussion about the value of women as complete human beings. Vashti refused to simply be a sex object even if that refusal cost her throne. Hopefully all of us can learn from her courage

A vital lesson about prejudice presents itself when Mordecai refuses to bow down before Haman.  Haman is angry, but as the Bible records: “…it was not enough for him to punish Mordecai alone, for they had told him the people of

Mordecai” (Esther 3:5). No, because of his anger at one man, Haman sought to destroy all the Jews.

Sadly, the prejudice presented against in the book of Esther has confronted our people many times throughout history. The Purim story provides a vivid example of this phenomenon that we can profitably discuss with young people.

The third vital lesson instructs us in the meaning of life itself. When Mordecai read Haman’s decree condemning the Jews of Persia to death, he sent a message to Esther to intercede for her people. Esther’s response was that she dared not enter the presence of the king because he had not summoned her, and the penalty is death for anyone even the queen who appears unbidden before the king unless he holds out his scepter as a sign of acceptance.

Mordecai, through the servant Hatach, asks Esther a question we should all frequently ask ourselves: “Who knows if you have not become queen for just such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). In other words, who knows if we are where we are at any given moment for the opportunity  to make a difference.

Mordecai really asks: Are we on this earth just to enjoy life? Is our own pleasure the primary purpose of our existence?

Jewish tradition and the Book of Esther say, “No.”

Esther could have lived out her life in selfish luxury. She could have ignored the plight of our people. But Mordecai’s question pricked her conscience enough so that she risked everything to save in an effort to save our people.

Mordecai’s question addresses us as well. What are we willing to risk to keep our people vibrant and strong?

In our day-to-day lives, we, like Esther have moments when our action or inaction, our willingness or unwillingness to risk it all can make a vital difference in someone’s life. We can seize these moments or turn away from them. Esther swallowed her fear and seized her moment. Her example and her courage commend themselves to all of us when the times come for us to step up and make a difference.

As Purim approaches, let us prepare for more than fun and games. If we truly study the Story of Esther, what we learn about the dignity of women, the phenomenon of prejudice and the very meaning of life itself can enrich our Jewish souls long after the celebration is over.