In honour of Debbie Friedman z”l: Celebrating Women in Judaism

This is based on a sermon I delivered for Parashat Shemot on 14 January 2012, close to the Gregorian calendar date of Debbie Friedman’s death on 9th January 2011:

***

When deciding for university, I had some friends at school who chose where to study solely on the basis of the photographs of the men and women in the prospectuses and how attractive they were. I promise that had nothing to do with my choice to read Psychology and Education at Cardiff University, where I would guess that around 80% of the students were women. I remember one lecturer, a very attractive young faculty member who had many of the women swooning with his charm, once asked, ‘When you have children, hands up who would like their first child to be a boy?’ Caught off guard, I’d say 75% of the hands went up; it was only when the students realised what they had done that they started to take it back, fearing the setback for feminism that was unfolding before them. My hand did not go up! It was this memory that also came to mind when people asked me in recent days, knowing that I have one daughter already, ‘do you know what it is?’ (concerning the imminent birth of my second child). ‘A girl’, I reply. ‘Oh well, keep trying’, comes the frequent response.

This sermon is dedicated to the outrage caused by the lecturer’s question; and it is also dedicated to the fact that I’m very happy with one wonderful daughter and the prospect of a second – I would want nothing different. We’ll have to see what the bank manager says about keeping trying!

If I had to hazard a guess that there was one Torah portion that was, at least, in part influenced by women if not written by women, I would argue it was the portion this morning – at least from a post-modern perspective.

Joseph can be momentarily forgotten about, because a new king, a vicious Pharaoh has arisen who knew him not.  We do not know any of the names of the new generation of Hebrews, of the descendents ofIsrael.  Ironic really since this portion is named ‘Shemot’ – names.  The first people, who are identified by name are Shifra and Puah.  Now, there is great discussion over whether they are actually Hebrews or just midwives for the Hebrews.  Nevertheless, the first people to be named in this new age are women and defiant, valiant and ethical women.  They defy Pharaoh’s laws to kill the baby boys of the Hebrews and show great courage in so doing.  Resisting this first biblically recorded attempt to systematically wipe out the Hebrew people.  These midwives are remarkable, heroines if we dare use such a term.

Next we have an episode in which every person (women) goes unnamed: Pharaoh’s daughter; a mother; and an outspoken daughter.  I think the text leaves everyone without a name because it concludes with Pharaoh’s daughter (the non-Hebrew) naming the boy – Moses.  Naming has such great power attributed to it in the Torah.  If one is able to name something, one has power or responsibility for it.  So, incredibly, Pharaoh’s daughter names our most significant prophet.

Now, we do not know at this stage who these amazing women are.  But later, we will be told that Moses’ sister is called Miriam and his mother Yocheved.  These two women offer up an inspiring example of bravery in the face of the oppression of Pharaoh, hiding the baby boy and having him rescued by a member of the royal family.  How many women were not so fortunate or so brave in this time of Egypt.  Note also that it is Moses’ mother and sister, not Amram his father or Aaron his older brother who get involved.  It is women again who save, who protect life, who will risk everything to save the life of a baby boy.

Pharaoh’s daughter remains unnamed.  It is only in a rabbinic twist that she is identified as Batya (literally daughter of God), who is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 4:18.  Of course, the rabbis must assert that she is a pious person, how else does she leave Egypt with the Israelites and marry into the tribe of Judah – as described by the Chronicles text.  However, that is to detract from the power of this moment.  In an act of great disobedience, for she knows that the boy is a Hebrew and we assume she knows her father’s laws about Hebrew baby boys, she saves him.  From Pharaoh’s instruction to throw boys into theNile, we could not get greater rebellion than taking a boy from it.  His very name, therefore, becomes reminiscent of this bravery. The power of his name is that it reminds us of the courageous act of salvation performed not just by a member of Pharoah’s household but his offspring, his daughter.

There is one other woman in this parasha who is also named and that is Zipporah.  She too is a woman of courage and of action, preserving life – when she circumcises her son to save him from some kind of threat. She shows again that it is women in this parasha who save, women who take action and women who play as important part in the history of our people than all the men put together.

The contrast is stark, between the women and the men in this parasha alone.  Pharaoh is the ultimate figure of death and impulsive death at that.  Moses, on the other hand is more hesitant, but his first act too is not one of lifesaving (though he may have thought that was what he was doing) but rather of death.  He kills the Egyptian who is beating the Hebrew, but only after looking ‘this way and that’ – hesitating.  This moment is pivotal for Moses identification with his people.  Again, later Moses is anything but impulsive.  He has little confidence (perhaps it is humility) in saving the Israelites.  He is not a man to take action quickly and firmly.  He stands in contrast to the women we meet in this portion, all of whom act resolutely in order to save life.

Later in Jewish history these models of women as leaders and as examples of resolute action reoccur. For example, Dona Gracia Mendes was a woman who grew up in a family of crypto-Jews in Portugal.  The family appeared Catholic, but practiced various Jewish beliefs in secret.  She lived in the 16th Century.  She set up a network of agents inEngland,Flanders,France andGermany to help secret Jews, Marranos, escape from the Inquisition – a Catholic attempt to protect Catholicism of Jews and Jews who had converted by killing many Jews.  She continued to help these Marranos and when she settled inTurkey she commissioned a Spanish translation of the Bible so that her co-religionists who were unable to read Hebrew could understand what it said.  She also organised a protest inAncona’s port by Jewish merchants when 25 Marranos were arrested and taken captive.  A remarkable woman committed to the saving of life and the preservation of Judaism.

We now have to skip, not because of a lack of other women, but because I want to come up to date and talk of a woman who I know was known by people in our very congregation.  Lily Montagu or Miss Lily as she was known to many.  I cannot do her memory justice, born in 1873 and died in 1963.  However, just a brief insight into her world.  Lily Montagu was instrumental in the formation of what was eventually to become Liberal Judaism.  Prompting the formation of the Jewish Religious Union in 1902.  This new union encouraged equality for women and the inclusion of English prayers.  In 1944 she was inducted as a lay-minister and probably could have been a rabbi if she was alive a little bit later in life.  Not only was she influential on the religious world of people, but she was also a social activist.  She worked tirelessly for the poor and working class individuals and was a pioneer in the field of youth work, especially for young women.  Again, here is a role model, a woman who demonstrates a profound sense of care and concern for the lives of individuals.

Finally, I want to explore a completely different model of contribution to our Jewish life today. If, like me, you are a firm believer in Judaism as an evolving way of life and that Liberal Judaism expresses what it means to continuously respond in an authentic way to our tradition and the 21st century, then you will understand the enormous significance of the late Debbie Friedman z”l. Debbie Friedman died this time last year after her final public performance in the UK at Limmud conference. Her contribution to Jewish music is impossible to over state. She was the popular composer of her time, for many she was a musicians’ musician. Debbie was someone who took the contemporary folk music of her world and brought it to life in her Jewish music. In that respect she was doing something which all the great Jewish composers have done throughout history, whether Salamon di Rossi, Levandowski or the Modzitz Hasidim. Drawing on contemporary folk music, Debbie’s music was of the people, it was popular, it was participatory, feminist, egalitarian, it was acoustic and could be sung communally. And it reflected a nascent spirituality in a generation of Jews who had grown disaffected from a highly decorous, rational and passive ritual world. I grew up with Debbie in events in my youth movement and hundreds of young people have sung her songs. We sing her songs in synagogue every week. Her influence has not just been amongst youth. Nearly every part of the Jewish world has been affected by what Debbie Friedman did. That’s why the School of Sacred Music at the Hebrew Union College now bears her name. Debbie is a woman who brings up to date my reflections on the neglect of women in the leaves of our book that we call Jewish history. Her legacy is in the generation of musicians who continue to compose and those who continue to celebrate in ritual which is participatory, based in social struggle and communal spirituality. We could learn a lot from Debbie, even if her music is not to our taste.

Debbie, along with these other women, is symbolic of a yearning for life, for understanding the deep significance of the future and its hope, for enhancing our Jewish world. I do not, for a moment, believe that this is a gender thing.  Men and women are all capable.  But, for a moment, in our Torah portion we are reminded of the great contribution that women have made to the Jewish people and towards the whole of the human race. The actions of one individual can make a profound and lasting impact on the lives of those around them and the future of our world.

I hope and pray we will be able to draw strength from the women in history and in the present who inspire others around them.  Their actions often save life, bring peace and ensure continuity and progression towards betterment for society. May this be God’s will, and let us say: Amen.

Advertisements