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Sunday, January 15, 2012


Dvar Torah For Parshat Shmot 5772.

You know the old sexist saw that behind every great man is a great woman? One way to think about Moses whom we met once again in the Torah this morning, is that behind him and his success stand a number of even greater women; some of them are never given names by the Torah, and almost all of them can only carry out their missions through subterfuge, since they lack the power of men in their society. The first two chapters of Exodus offer us a bonanza of these incredibly courageous women who toil quietly and subversively to resist Pharoah’s genocidal decree and to save Moses, the savior of Israel. Whether or not they are Hebrew midwives or non-Jewish midwives to the Hebrews, Shifrah and Puah exploit their expertise and their proximity to women in labor to save innocent children from being murdered; Pharaoh’s daughter exploits her position of power to violate her father’s laws, as she knowingly brings this Hebrew baby into the royal palace and raises him right under her father’s nose, even to the point of giving him a name; Moses’ as-yet unnamed sister intervenes with Pharaoh’s daughter by offering her their mother as a wet nurse to feed and care for baby Moses. All of these women enter a conspiracy of compassion against Pharaoh and the Egyptian state, using their intelligence and love for this one child and for all the children at risk, to disrupt the apparatus of a terrorist regime. The rabbis of the Talmud are so impressed by the role of women in these Torah narratives that they tell all sorts of tales about how all the Hebrew women encouraged their despondent husbands to not lose hope or the desire to bear more children. The Talmud even declares that women should not be exempted from the obligation of being part of the Pesach seder - a time –bound, positive commandment from which Jewish women would normally be exempted according to Jewish law. They reason historically that women were also active participants in the redemption from Egypt, and they too must be part of the seder experience.

Because of all the courageous, quick-thinking behavior of these heroines, Tzipporah’s arrival on the scene in this Torah portion stands out as an enigma. She and her sisters are portrayed initially as shepherdesses- in-distress whom Moses the Egyptian stranger must save from the male thugs hassling them at the local well. When Reuel, her father, questions her about why she did not offer Moses hospitality after his brave act of kindness, we get the feeling that she is a somewhat passive, perhaps not-too-bright eldest daughter, or that she is perhaps a rather young girl. We read that Moses marries Tzipporah, in accordance with ancient near eastern marriage laws requiring the eldest daughter to be married first. After that, all we are told is that Moses takes leave of his father-in-law to return to Egypt on a mission from God to redeem his people, and that he takes Tzipporah and their son, Gershom with him into the heart of the danger. We never hear about Tzipporah’s reaction to her husband’s decision, and later rabbinic writers have to supply an imaginative dialogue in which her father tells his son-in-law that putting his wife and child in the way of harm is a really bad idea. Later rabbinic interpretations of the Torah suggest that Moses becomes celibate as he gets closer to God during the forty years’ wandering in the desert, thus presumably leaving Tzipporah in a miserable married state with an emotionally and sexually unavailable spouse. A very late midrashic source even imagines Tzipporah lamenting to Miriam, her sister-in-law, about the terrible situation of the wives of communal leaders.

It seems that only one biblical story, an extremely strange and elliptical one, offers us a much more forceful, complex view of who Tzipporah really is. Turn back with me to this morning’s Torah portion in Humash Etz Hayyim, pages 336-337, verses 24-26:

At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Tzipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” And when He (God) let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”

Everything about this bizarre, chilling story hints at even more ancient tales of the angry God or gods being warded off by blood, which serves as an apotropaic, a magical ritual or device that protects people from evil. For a parallel example, think about the blood of the first Pesach offering being splashed on the doors of the Israelites to ward off the impending plague of the firstborn. In our scene, at least as it is understood by many commentators, Moses has failed to perform brit milah, circumcision, on his son, who is now presumably the one imperiled by God’s desire to kill him. Circumcision is the sign of the covenant, and without it a person cannot be part of the covenanted community.

A lot is unclear in these verses: is Moses in danger or is their son in danger? Does Tzipporah take the foreskin and touch it to Moses’ leg or to their son’s leg? What is a bridegroom of blood, and who does it actually refer to, Moses or the child? What is very clear is that Tzipporah not only acts in this crisis situation, she acts quickly and decisively to stop God from hurting her family. How astounding it is that only Tzipporah is named here, along with God, with no men intervening. She and God are alone in a life-and-death battle that requires the actual drawing of blood, not for death but for life. Even more astounding is that Tzipporah takes the radical initiative of performing a brit milah, a religious circumcision, one of the most sacred, mysterious Jewish rituals that focuses exclusively and publicly on the religious identities and power of Jewish men. The Rabbis take this mysterious biblical tale and expand it into an even wilder tale in which Tzipporah sees God’s angel swallow Moses, from his head to his genitalia, and she then realizes that her family is in mortal danger because of Moses’ dereliction in carrying out the mitzvah of circumcision on their son, a mitzvah she values highly.

This portrayal of Tzipporah is refreshingly paradoxical: she is deeply faithful to her adopted religion, including its male-centered rituals and leadership, yet within that framework she is an aggressive advocate for her family, she takes bold religious initiatives, and she fights openly with God! Though they make many patriarchal assumptions and rules about women’s status, the Torah and its rabbinic interpreters recognize Tzipporah’s public activism as a normative role model for traditional Jewish women. Sadly, this model is being seriously threatened in parts of the Jewish world today, as Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy (in Hebrew, Haredi) grows increasingly belligerent and misogynistic. Using Jewish laws of modesty as an excuse, some rabbinic authorities and lay leaders here and especially in Israel have intensified their campaign to utterly segregate men and women in ways frightfully reminiscent of Jim Crow laws in the south. These have included sex-segregated private bus lines that are publicly franchised by New York City in Brooklyn and public bus lines in Israel that are illegally segregated in religious neighborhoods. In both circumstances, women are literally relegated to the back of the buses. Another recent example of brutal sex segregation was the sickening harassment of 8 year old Naamah Margolis of the Israeli city of Bet Shemesh, who was spat upon and verbally abused as she walked to the new Orthodox girl's yeshivah that she attends in that city. Her harassers, members of a violent Haredi faction, claim that she and other girls were not dressing modestly enough to be allowed to walk in public. The outcry from all segments of the Israeli street, including some in the Haredi community, as well as community leaders and politicians, has so far been significant, and peaceful protests against the encroachment upon women's rights -and upon democratic protections- within Israeli society have been growing. Still, such brazen public attempts at repressing women are chilling.

The Haredi community has never supported the religious equality of men and women; it is not egalitarian, and it is not our right to tell Haredi Jews that they must practice Judaism as we do. However, what I am describing is not traditional religious practice, but the perversion of Jewish law in an effort to forcefully silence the public voices and presence of women, even if American and Israeli law and culture forbid someone from doing so. Particularly in Israel, where aggressive Haredi political parties often have their fragile government coalitions by the throat, the growing repression of women is encroaching upon public space and the rest of Israel’s citizenry. This adds to an already contentious relationship between religious and secular Jews around a wide variety of issues that engender deep resentment and divide Israeli society. We are not Israeli citizens, yet as Jews, Zionists, and supporters of democracy, we have a genuine vested interest in helping all women in the State of Israel to live freely and without fear. The increased public repression of women is one canary in the coal mine of Israeli democracy that is facing increasing challenges from political and religious ultra-rightists in the Israeli government and religious community. Under the guises of security and religiosity they are slowly eroding basic protections for women, minorities, and those with differing political view points. This is not good for Israel as a democracy. Yet it is also not good for Israel as a young, vibrant society. Israel needs Shifrah and Puah, the daughter of Pharaoh, Miriam and Yocheved: women who have the strength and the courage to work with men and challenge men to continue to build a state and a Jewish people founded upon justice. Most of all, Israel, the Jewish people and the world need Tzipporah: women for whom Judaism matters vitally, and who are also not afraid to speak their minds and act forcefully in behalf of others in the midst of crisis, when the gravity of the hour calls for it.

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