Shavuot: A new model of relationship where women are (also) in the narrative

We first find the festival in the book of Exodus where it is called called הקציר חג hag ha-katzir “the  festival of harvest” later clarified with the information that the harvest is of “the first-fruits of your labours” (Exodus 23:16). When we meet it in Leviticus (ch23) it has no name but we are told to count seven complete weeks plus one day -fifty days- and then bring a new meal offering and other sacrifices – the first fruits – to God. In the book of Numbers (28:26) we are told it is  “the day of the first-fruits, הבכורים יום when you bring a new meal-offering to the Eternal in your feast of weeks” and in Deuteronomy it is called the festival of Shavuot because of the counting of seven weeks from having put the sickle to the standing grain.

There is nothing in bible about this being the festival of the giving of Torah, the name we use now in our liturgical marking of the festival. Shavuot as we know it is a construction that builds on the ritual of bringing first fruits as sacrifices to the Temple to acknowledge God’s presence in our lives, and replaces this with the covenantal relationship we have as a people with God, a relationship which is documented and defined by the giving and receiving of Torah.

So how amazing it is then that this festival which is the bridge par excellence between Temple and Rabbinic Judaism has as one of its major texts the story told in the book of Ruth, one of only two books named for a woman in the whole of Torah, a book which places women and women’s relationships right at the centre of the narrative, as one of them freely accepts all the obligations of Torah to join the Jewish people, and the other acts as her guide and support.

Other women also feature in the book, with strong supporting roles. Orpah, the other sister in law, who chooses to go back to her own people rather than go forward with Ruth and Naomi to an unknown future. The women of Bethlehem who act like a chorus and comment on the situation of Naomi. Even the matriarchs Rachel and Leah and the brave and resourceful Tamar make an extraordinary appearance, when the elders tell Boaz: ‘We are witnesses. The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel….and let your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, of the seed which the Eternal shall give thee of this young woman.’ (Ruth 4:11-12)

As we are modelling a new relationship with God that has moved from the cult of sacrificial worship to a Judaism based on words and actions that aspire to bring us closer to God, the leading figures are the women, and we have two pairs of women – Naomi and Ruth, Rachel and Leah, who have modelled for us an extraordinary generous and compassionate relationship. The sisters had had the misfortune to marry the same man, and therefore be thrown into competition with each other, something that is not referred to in the text before Jacob came along, and we know that Rachel took pity on her older – and less loved -sister Leah by giving her tokens to seduce Jacob. Naomi and Ruth had the misfortune to be widowed and left without masculine support in a patriarchal world, but Ruth’s determination to stay with Naomi and Naomi’s supportive matriarchal abilities meant that all ended well for them both – indeed it is in this book that we find the only time a woman is described as loving another woman – right at the end of the book the women of Bethlehem say that Ruth loves (a.ha.v) Naomi, and Naomi nurses Ruth’s child, an act of extraordinary love and unity. Their relationship is the exact opposite of the parody of mother-in-law / daughter-in-law. It’s true there is no husband/son to fight over but they do not fight over the child/grandchild but instead are both functioning as its mother – indeed the women of Bethlehem say “a child is born to Naomi” rather than to Ruth – the mothering is from both women without problem.

The blessing given when Boaz is to marry Ruth is another extraordinary piece of text. “The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel”. There is a clear resonance with the blessing by Jacob of his two grandsons by Joseph (Genesis 48:20) “By you will Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh” – itself a blessing of harmonisation, given that Ephraim (the younger) is placed above Manasseh, with no complaint or jealousy shown by the boys, a first in the blessing of sons in the book of Genesis. So again this is a blessing of resolution of any rivalries, a bringing together of two who might fight against each other but instead choose to work together without hostility. Then comes the naming of Rachel and Leah, sisters whose relationship may have been poisoned by the actions of Jacob, each wanting what the other had from him – one wanting love, the other wanting children. Apart from the disruption in their lives caused by Jacob, there is no textual reference to any hostility between them. And here they are credited as being the two who built the house of Israel.  Sarah and Rebecca here are less important as matriarchs – it is the mothers of the twelve tribes who take centre stage as with the tribal configuration Israel becomes less one family and more one people. I am aware that Bilhah and Zilpah are also the mothers of sons of Jacob and are not credited with this – I think because legally they are surrogates, the children not belonging to them, and this is a subject that will be given space in the future.

So here as the denouement of the text, the marriage of the foreign woman Ruth to Boaz a descendant of Tamar and Judah, and the bringing into the house of Naomi (who midrash gives a genealogy that will also lead to Judah and Tamar) means that the house of Boaz will be built like the house of Israel – the Jewish people will grow in numbers and in strength, but also be ready to receive Torah in its life, as Ruth has demonstrated her willing acceptance out in the wilds Moab just as the Israelites demonstrated their acceptance in the wilds of Sinai. There is a harmonisation, a sense of bringing together loose ends and readying for the next stage, and it is all done through the relationship of women with each other, choosing not to try to best each other or outdo each other, but to work together to build for the future.

And what an edifice was built on the foundations of these women. Of Tamar who boldly waylaid Judah in order to have the child that was rightfully hers and that would liberate her from yevamah. Of Rachel and Leah who became the matriarchs of tribal Judaism. Of Naomi who survived the deaths of her husband and sons, who ‘came back empty’ in her own words but who found the way to replenish and rebuild, based on her relationship of love and dvekut with her foreign daughter in law. Of Ruth, whose behaviour would not now pass the test of tzniut in many communities, but who also found a way to replenish and rebuild a life that may otherwise have dwindled into nothing.

The edifice built was ultimately the Davidic line of monarchy as the genealogy at the end of the book tells us.  And this is another ‘wild card’ in the patriarchal narrative we are so used to. For David is the grandchild of a Moabite woman and a descendant of more than one woman who used their bodies and their sexuality to gain what they needed. He is the descendant of men who left Beit Lechem to go to the hated Moab in time of famine and paid for it with their lives. He is the scion of a family with more skeletons in their wardrobe than one can imagine, and at the same time he is the descendant of women who broke the mould of sibling rivalries and patriarchal power plays, who chose to work together, to love each other in the most unlikely circumstances, to help each other unselfishly.

Torah was given to a people who were afraid and trembling, in a desert where they were insecure by a God who was so terrifying that they begged Moses to act as intermediary and agent for them. Sinai is a powerful piece of theatre with smoke and mountains that shook and the sound of a shofar piercing the air. At Shavuot we get a different model – a young woman who willingly and with love stays with an older woman and helps her return to her home, an older woman who willingly and with love guides the younger towards a future that will be blessed with security and warmth. No great theatre, no powerful revelation, just the day to day living of two people helping each other out.

I think the rabbis chose well when this book became the story read to parallel the theophany at Sinai. Here are the women, who were so hidden from view in the Exodus telling of the story. Here are the ordinary and quotidian activities of people caring for each other. Here is a true story of love and of people helping each other to what they need – no fireworks, no drama – just the reality of covenantal relationship in its quiet and extraordinary glory.

 

Tamar: taking her destiny in her own hands she will enable the messiah. Parashat Vayeshev

judah-and-tamar-chagallInserted into the Joseph narratives that take up much of the last half of the book of Genesis, is a chapter about Judah and about his family. It is also a chapter about the actions of a woman who is determined to right a wrong and how she achieves this goal. Situated as it is so discordantly in the Joseph narrative it is easy to turn the page, to ignore the text as we continue to read about Joseph’s troubles and his subsequent elevation. Because it deals with sexual acts, and with apparent impropriety, it is studied much less than it should be. The lens of the narrator is narrow, detail is sparse, but it is a text worth a great deal of attention, for it reminds us that in bible the women were actors in the story and not observers, they were out in the public space, their behaviour often created pivots in the chronicle. The story of Judah and Tamar shouts out “notice me” – the sons of Jacob are yet again challenged by a woman and this time they cannot cheat her or hide from her or marginalise her. Tamar is a risk taker while all the time behaving within the law. She is a model for modern Jewish women, her story reminds us our destiny is in our own hands.

Judah leaves his brothers and marries a Canaanite woman, the unnamed daughter of Shua, and has three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah.  Without comment from the narrator, time passes and he takes a wife for his first born son -Tamar. What do we know about her? Her antecedents are shrouded in mystery though we may assume that she was also a Canaanite woman. There is one tradition that suggests that she is the daughter of Malchitzedek, King of Shalem and Priest to the Most High God, and certainly she behaves in a way that bespeaks confidence and determination to get her rights fulfilled.

Tamar is married to Er, who was “wicked in the sight of God, and God killed him” (38:8). She was then married to his younger brother Onan, specifically (and anachronistically) for him to perform the act of yevamah, to provide a child who would legally be the child of the dead and childless Er.

But Onan knew that the child would not be formally his, as so when he went to her he deliberately spilled his semen on the ground rather than create a child who would inherit the portion of his dead brother, and the bible tells us “Vayera b’eynei Adonai asher assah vayamet gam oto: The thing that he did was evil in the sight of God, and he killed him too” (v10)

What did Er do that was so wicked he deserved to die? Bible doesn’t tell us. While there is a strand of tradition that suggests that the boys die as punishment for the wickedness of their father, so that he should feel the pain of the death of a child as he had caused his father to feel that grief when he did not protect Joseph, the general consensus of tradition is that the sin must have been Er’s and must have been similar to that of his brother. Hence one Midrash suggests that he did not want Tamar to spoil her beauty by becoming pregnant and therefore his relations with her were designed to prevent pregnancy. This I think tells us much more about the commentators than it does about the text, but the reality is that he does not provide a child for his wife before his sudden death.

Onan’s wickedness however is clear, and it is not the sin that bears his name. It is not the spilling of the seed that was the real problem in God’s eyes, it was the fact that he did not want to give his dead brother a stake in the future, a child who would inherit both the name and the material benefit that would have belonged to Er. He denied his dead brother an heir and he denied his wife the protection that having the child would give her.

What we are told and what we are not told in this text is fascinating. The bible is keen to make sure we know that Judah has left his brothers, that he has built a deep friendship with Hirah an Addullamite (va’yet). It tells us of his Canaanite wife bat Shua and his children with her. It tells us that the action takes place in Chezib – and here is the clue to the whole sorry tale, for the name Chezib comes from the root-verb כזב (kazab), meaning to lie, to disappoint, to fail. As an idiom the word is also used to describe a brook or stream that has dried up – a river that disappoints, rather than one that will provide water. Judah has three sons, and yet the likelihood of his having descendants after them diminishes as the disappointment and the lies build up.

The bible signals that the story is about deceptions and disappointment, and Judah as the fourth son of Jacob and Leah is born into deception and disappointment, even while he will ultimately become the ancestor par excellence, the tribe from whom we will descend.

After the deaths of the two older sons, Judah tells Tamar to “stay a widow in the house of your father until Shelah my son grows up” Assuming the practise of yevamah, this appears to be a reasonable request, though why Tamar is kept in her father’s house rather than that of her in-laws bears further examination. But it seems that he is trying to keep her at a distance, for bible continues that same verse with the words “Lest he also die like his brothers”.

The superstition that a woman who loses more than one husband is somehow responsible is dangerous and a killer of men who come close to her has deep roots. It is a classic example of blaming the victim. Widows were economically and socially vulnerable, classed in bible along with orphans and strangers in the land/refugees. There are many exhortations to protect the widows in biblical texts, but in this story in the first book of Genesis, before Torah had been given and before its challenge to established norms, the superstition drives Judah, and sadly his behaviour means that the idea of the “black widow” has permeated into our awareness too.

Widowed now himself, Judah goes to see his great friend Hirah in Timnah. We do not know how much time has passed but Tamar is able to observe for herself that Shelah has grown up and that he has not been given to her as a husband in order to both provide a child in his brother’s names. Tamar is trapped in a situation that does not allow her to marry within the family of Judah nor to marry anyone else. She must feel desperate.

Judah doesn’t tell Tamar that he is travelling near to where she is. He has left her exiled in her father’s home living as a widow and he seems to have no communication with her, nor any interest in her continued well-being.  Someone unnamed tells her that Judah will be travelling through and Tamar takes her chance.

She removes the widow’s weeds she is wearing and covering herself with her veil she sits “petach Einayim” – which could mean “at the entrance to Einayim” but which also means “at the opening of the eyes”. This is a pivot in the story. There has been up till now lies and deception, the suppressing of the reason that God found Er wicked, the betrayal by Onan of his brother’s rights to the future.   Tamar has been hidden from sight in the household of her father, there is no communication between the two households, she is out of sight and out of mind. But here she is, sitting by the roadway Judah will travel, determined to be noticed, to open Judah’s eyes to the injustice done to her.  Her action is eye opening.

Judah certainly sees her. He notices her. At least, he notices there is a woman there and he makes the assumption that she is a prostitute. And the reason for this? Because her face is covered.  Think about this. He reaches his conclusion that this is a woman available for hire for sexual relief because her face is covered. In today’s world a veiled face is supposed to designate modesty, protecting the beauty of the woman from the crassness of the world – yet here in bible the clear assumption is that the veiled face designates woman only as object. She stops being a person. She doesn’t exist as living breathing yearning thinking woman. She is a prostitute, available for the pleasure of men who pay. There is at least some honesty in this approach – the reality of the woman is unimportant in the world of the biblical text, who she is is irrelevant to the man who buys her. In today’s world of extreme tzniut used to oppress women in some communities, the deception is back. Telling women that their covered state and hiddenness from the public space is a way of increasing their holiness, protecting their modesty etc is a lie to hide the fact that their very self is being controlled by others, to keep them as possessions and as subjects rather than as active and authentic people with their own agency.

Judah is polite, he speaks to her with courtesy, not knowing who she is at all. The same verb is used as with his relationship with Hirah – vayet eleha – he turns to her. This could be the beginning of a real connection, but it is not because he does not see someone with whom connection can be made. He sees only the possibility of a sexual moment and this is what he asks for. So she begins the negotiation “what would you give me in payment for sex?” He offers her a future payment, a young kid from the flock, and she counters with the request for a pledge that she can keep until such time as the payment is made. It seems that Judah is unused to this type of negotiation. He asks her what such a pledge should be and she requests three deeply personal and unique items that will be recognisable and indisputably his.  Having given them to her, they have intercourse and Tamar conceives at last.

The interlude over, she leaves and removing the veil she puts on her widows weeds once again. Judah keeps his promise, sending the animal as promised with Hirah his friend, and expecting the return of his pledge, but she is gone, and when Hirah asks around where the prostitute who had been sitting there was, the response is that there had been no prostitute. This he relays to Judah, who doesn’t seem to be at all perturbed by the woman’s disappearance with his personal possessions, and seems rather to hope that by ignoring what has happened he will escape any shame. But how can he just leave his pledge, his signet, cords and staff, as if nothing has happened?  These days we might call it identity theft, we would desperately search for our missing items and try our best to make good the loss. Judah’s response “tikach la, pen nihyeh lavuz” is more than laconic, it is negligent and it is fearful of any shame attaching to him and his friend. Why?

Three months later the news reaches Judah that Tamar is pregnant, and the assumption is that she has prostituted herself. No communication has happened between the two as yet and when she is brought to Judah in order to be punished by burning, she still does not immediately identify the father by name. Instead there is a sort of choreography – she is brought to the household of Judah from her father’s house. She does not appear to meet Judah, instead she sends the pledged items he had given her and says “Clarify please whose are these tokens? The signet the cords and the staff?” It is of course a rhetorical question but it is a dangerous one. For a man who had been trying to avoid shame, Judah could have taken and sequestered the items. She would have been burned to death along with her unborn children. But instead he acknowledged them and speaks of the justice and rightness of Tamar’s act – she had simply been trying to fulfil the requirement for a child for his two dead sons, and in doing that to protect her own vulnerable situation too.

Like Rebecca, Tamar has twins. Like her too the birth is eventful – the first child puts out a hand and then withdraws it but not before a scarlet thread has been tied around it, the second child is then born, and the elder one is fully born second. Their names are given, but not it seems by Tamar. The elder child is named Zerach which means brightness or shining. The younger is Perez – meaning to burst forth, to breach. There are many echoes of Rebecca here, the colour red, the description of the older child in terms of his appearance and the younger in terms of his actions.  There is a clear subtext that these children were designed to be born, they are necessary in terms of the biblical narrative. They would not have been born had Judah followed his plan to keep Tamar in purdah to protect his one surviving son from what he saw was her danger – a superstition roundly exploded in the story, for Judah is not endangered by his encounter with Tamar.

The story is tidied up – both dead brothers have a child to take their place in history. Tamar does not need to marry again, her status is established. Judah has come to realise that his behaviour was not as righteous as that of his Canaanite daughter in law and has acknowledged this.  But the questions arising from the story only multiply. Why this story at all? Why put it here in the Joseph narratives? Why did the children need to be born?

One question is partially answered in the genealogical line given in the book of Ruth, the Moabite woman who also took her status as childless widow into her own hands and had a child by a family member of her dead husband in order both to honour his future and to protect her own vulnerable status. We will learn from this genealogy that King David will descend from the line of Perez – that both Tamar the Canaanite woman and Ruth the Moabite woman will pivot history in order to bring about the birth of the messianic line.   But why does King David and why will his messianic descendant need to be born of such deceptive sexual encounters orchestrated by the women? This is a question yet to be satisfactorily answered.

Why is it in the Joseph narrative? With the themes of clothing to hide identity, of deception and betrayal, of promises made and not kept and of the painful loss of children, with mis-communication and with the lack of communication, with fear and shame and hopelessness and exile –  there is much to connect these narratives.  But Tamar herself is not echoed in the Joseph stories, except maybe in parody when the wife of his master desires him and lies that he tried to sleep with her. Tamar stands alone in these narratives, a woman who is married twice to unworthy and wicked men yet who retains her own integrity and keeps her eye on the future. Blamed as a husband killer when we know from bible that God kills the men because of their wickedness, exiled to her father’s house and marginalised from the narrative, she uses her marginal status and plays out the scene whereby she becomes not-woman, a body, a prostitute for hire at the roadside, and moves her descendants into the centre of the narrative.

One of my favourite lines of any film comes in “My big fat Greek Wedding”. It tells the story of a woman of Greek descent trying to find herself and her place in society outside her father’s home and the struggles she endures as she grows. Her father makes a decree about her future and she is despondent. Her mother tells her that indeed she must obey, the father is the head of the house. In their culture, his word is law. But the mother goes on to say, the father is the head but the mother is the neck, and the head points whatever way the neck dictates.  It speaks to me of biblical narrative, when the men make the decisions and hold the power, but with great regularity the women subvert that decision making, and from Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah onwards they gently manipulate in order to produce the desired outcome. The list of these women in bible is long, yet often they escape our attention as they escape the attention of the men with whom they live. Tamar is a rare exception – by getting herself noticed she will disrupt the course of the narrative and change history.

Beshallach/ Shabbat Shira: the Song of Miriam

“And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam sang to them: Sing ye to the Eternal for God is highly exalted: the horse and its rider God has thrown into the sea.”

Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, is named for the Song at/of the Sea (Shirat haYam) and this name takes precedence over the usual format of the first important word giving the title to the week. Shirat haYam was the song of victory sung by the Israelite slaves after they had successfully crossed the Reed Sea, and the pursuing Egyptians had drowned there following the miraculous opening and then closing of the waves to allow the Israelites safe passage but not the heavily armed Egyptians.

Along with the poem in Deuteronomy (Ha’azinu) it bookends the story of Moses and the people of Israel as they leave Egyptian slavery and journey through the wilderness to arrive at the edge of the promised land, and tradition ascribes its authorship to Moses.

But tucked into the text a little way down we are introduced for the first time by name to Miriam, described as “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron” and she takes a drum in her hand and leads the women in singing and dancing and drumming to celebrate the victory. And while apparently singing the same first line, Moses and the children of Israel sing “I will sing to the Eternal, for God is highly exalted” while Miriam sings “Sing to the Eternal, for God is highly exalted”. She uses the imperative version, whereas Moses and the Israelites use the personal pronoun.

The order of the text makes us read this as the song of Moses, but is there a clue in the wording of the text to tell us that this is the song of Miriam?

In the fragments of text found in Qumran (known as the Dead Sea Scrolls) we find a tantalising addition. Just as in the biblical text we find that “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron took a timbrel in her hand and led the women out with her with timbrels and dancing”, but then there is a break, and then the fragments of seven lines NOT found in the biblical text, followed by the narrative being picked up as the biblical verse 15:22 where Moses leads the Israelites away from the Reed Sea into the desert, and the people find no water until arriving at Marah they find undrinkably bitter (Marah) water.

Is the Qumran text a gloss on the biblical poem of Moses, answering the question of what Miriam might have sung and paralleling other songs of victory or was it the original text which took away words from Miriam and the women in order to give them to Moses and the Israelites? We know that women sang songs of victory after battles – Deborah is a prime example whose song is recorded (Judges 5), and Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:34) comes out with timbrel and dancing on his return home. Unnamed women come out dancing and singing with their timbrels when David returns having defeated the Philistines (1Sam 18:6-7) celebrating his success and humiliating King Saul’s record. Hannah (1Sam:2) sings when she achieves her goal of a child, and the late book Judith has her sing in the final chapter, having beheaded Holofernes…

So why not Miriam and the women singing their song? Miriam the prophetess was also Miriam the musician and song leader. Her voice and her words deserve to be heard and to be recognised.

miriams timbrel

Whatever the reason for the biblical canon to contain just the remnant of her singing with the women, apparently echoing the words of Moses and the men, so that tradition could claim her as the song leader for the women only, I think there are enough clues left for us to give her the power and place she deserves.

The first place that Moses leads the Israelites to is called by the narrator “Marah” , after the bitter and undrinkable water found there and there is much murmuring against Moses until on God’s instructions he finds a tree whose wood will sweeten the water. Moses uses this as a teaching aid to remind the people that God is their healer, and then they move on to Elim where there are twelve good water sources and seventy palm trees. Is this a veiled reference to Miriam, whose name is impossible to translate with certainty but which is often understood as coming from “Mar – yam – bitter – water/sea”? Are the people murmuring because of Miriam and her treatment by Moses that he appropriated her rightful role? And are they pacified by the oasis of plenty represented by 12 springs and seventy palm trees and so forget their indignation?

But more intriguing I think is the possibility that Miriam’s name is not derived from bitterness MRH) but comes from a rarely used root MRR to mean a flow of water, drops of water or a watercourse. In which case her name would mean the flowing of water or the directing of water – something that would come to fruition not only in the midrashic idea that wherever Miriam was there was water for the Israelites in the desert (which comes from the drought that is the first reported event after her death), but from this text about the Reed Sea, which changed direction, flowed differently and intentionally while the Israelites crossed it. The name Miriam, introduced exactly here, is I think a clue to her purpose –  we are already explicitly told that she is a prophetess, she has real and intentional meaning and understanding – it is Miriam who causes the sea to part and the miraculous redemption of the fugitive people. Her name, hiding in full view, tells us exactly that.

So the Song here attributed to Moses yet called slightly confusingly Shirat HaYam , the Song of (or at) the Sea (a name first recorded in the 2nd Century in Talmud Yerushalmi), might actually have been Shirat MirYam, the song of Miriam. And how powerfully that simple change could have affected our understanding of our foundational texts and shaped the hearing of the voices of women in our tradition.

Drop by drop as we look again at the texts, we who see Miriam as a role model, who see ourselves reflected in her life as prophetess, sister, organiser, carer for children, provider of life giving water/nourishment, song leader, drummer and dancer , as well as a hard worker behind the scenes who protested injustice done to others and the arrogating of power to the male leadership – we need to take notice of the effect that the flow of water can have – it can wear away the hardest rock. Drop by determined drop we take up her mantle and raise our voices in song and in challenge and in prophecy, and hope that this time the words will not disappear from the canon.

(Photo of Miriam’s timbrel and the reeds in Egypt/water of the Reed Sea from an embroidered Torah Wimple made by Caroline and Naomi Ingram for the author)

Women’s Voices and the Public Space:Tradition and Texts that must not disappear

I am increasingly convinced that unless women know the texts of our own tradition, we will be at the mercy of the interpretations of those who wish to keep women’s voices from the public sphere. The tension that exists between those who wish to shut women up and the rights and desires of women to speak and be heard has been around for hundreds, even thousands of years. And yet the texts upon which our tradition actually stands are unaware of such tension. It is clear that women and men both had a voice that must be heard, there is no cognizance or pattern in bible of women being silenced. Indeed the voices of the matriarchs are powerful drivers of the narrative, their needs are documented, their feelings acknowledged. Indeed one of my favourite overlooked verses in bible is when Abraham is told to listen to the voice of Sarah: “And God said to Abraham: ‘Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad, and because of your bondwoman; in all that Sarah says to you, hearken to her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to you.” (Genesis 21:12)

I am well aware that in Genesis 3: 17 God punishes Adam, apparently because he listened to his wife’s voice: “And to Adam God said: ‘Because you have hearkened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you, saying: You shall not eat of it; cursed is the ground for you sake; in toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life.” But these two verses do not need to be in opposition. In the story of the eating of the fruit of the tree, the words “because you have listened to the voice of your wife” are apparently superfluous in that Adam also ate of the fruit of the tree. So what is the problem here? Chaim ibn Attar (known as the Or ha-Ḥayyim) a prominent 18th century Moroccan Rabbi suggests that the problem is that Adam listened to his wife but did not engage her in conversation and so did not understand the provenance of the fruit that she was giving him. If we extend this argument to the verse where Abraham is told to listen to Sarah, his listening (presumably a more dynamic and thoughtful listening than that of Adam) leads him to do what God wants. The point is that both voices in active conversation, with active listening to the other, are required, and not the one way control where women are instructed by the voice of men to keep their voices silent. That way lies the fate of Adam, cast out of the garden because he did not actively converse with his wife.

The classical world did not appreciate the voice of women in public space, and it seems to me that Judaism (along with other traditions and cultures) have whole heartedly adopted the mores of the Greek and Roman worlds where it comes to the voices of women. Mary Beard wrote a wonderful treatment of women’s voices in this classical world which you can access here http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n06/mary-beard/the-public-voice-of-women and I recommend that you do so in order to see just how much syncretism has gone on in order to suppress the sound of women’s voices. She speaks not only of the systematised disempowerment of women in the classical world but also of the thinking behind it, writing that “to become a man – and we’re talking elite man – was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of maleness. A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman.”

But in the world of bible the genders were not so defined, though certainly the rabbinic literature is influenced by the view of women as being of lower status that threads through the law and customs from the Roman world. The rabbis might have absorbed this view, but it comes to them from a world view outside the ur-texts of our tradition.

So here is a list, not exhaustive and not definitive, of the voices of women singing and dancing and loudly celebrating in the presence of – indeed alongside – the men.

The songs (and dances) of Women

  1. Miriam dances and sings with timbrels in a victory song Exodus 15: 1-3, 20 – 23

א אָ֣ז יָֽשִׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה וַיֹּֽאמְר֖וּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַּֽיהוָֹה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹֽכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם: ב עָזִּ֤י וְזִמְרָת֙ יָ֔הּ וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י לִֽישׁוּעָ֑ה זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ אֱלֹהֵ֥י אָבִ֖י וַֽאֲרֹֽמְמֶֽנְהוּ: ג יְהוָֹ֖ה אִ֣ישׁ מִלְחָמָ֑ה יְהוָֹ֖ה שְׁמֽוֹ:

“Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Eternal, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the Eternal, for God is highly exalted; the horse and his rider God has thrown into the sea. The Eternal is my strength and song, and God is become my salvation; this is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father’s God, and I will exalt Him. The Eternal is a man of war, The Eternal is God’s name.”

כ וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַֽהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אן ָ כָל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַֽחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת: כא וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָֹה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹֽכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם:   ס   כב וַיַּסַּ֨ע מֹשֶׁ֤ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ מִיַּם־ס֔וּף וַיֵּֽצְא֖וּ אֶל־מִדְבַּר־שׁ֑וּר וַיֵּֽלְכ֧וּ שְׁלֹֽשֶׁת־יָמִ֛ים בַּמִּדְבָּ֖ר וְלֹא־מָ֥צְאוּ מָֽיִם: כג וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ מָרָ֔תָה וְלֹ֣א יָֽכְל֗וּ לִשְׁתֹּ֥ת מַ֨יִם֙ מִמָּרָ֔ה כִּ֥י מָרִ֖ים הֵ֑ם עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָֽרָא־שְׁמָ֖הּ מָרָֽה:

“And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam sang to them: Sing ye to the Eternal, for God is highly exalted: the horse and his rider God has thrown into the sea. And Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water. And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah.”

Many scholars are of the opinion that the whole hymn in Exodus was originally led by Miriam, not just the verse above (v21) that mirrors Moses in verse 1. It was known that women would lead victory songs and dancing (see 1 Samuel 18:6-7 below)

A separate song of Miriam has survived in part in a Qumran text (4Q365 fragment 6a and 6c). The seven lines which expand the song and are preserved here indicate that Miriam was considered in the ancient Jewish text as an appropriate singer of songs, an autonomous figure with her own song of triumph which, while it repeats some of the features of the Mosaic song recorded in Exodus has other material not so recorded.

Certainly Jewish tradition contains a number of statements that refer to the song of Miriam and to the way her voice was heard at the Reed Sea. Philo of Alexandria (also known as Philo Judaeus) (20 BCE- 50 CE) suggests that the men and women sang together. Rashi, citing the Mechilta (ad loc), comments that “Moses sang the song to the men; he sang the song and they responded after him, and Miriam sang the song to the women (and they responded after her, as it is written ‘Sing’ [Shiru]).”

Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Weiser, 1809-1879) also assumes that the women sang, because they could claim that the redemption from Egypt only took place because of their merit as women had saved Moses as a baby and the midwives Shipra and Puah had defied the Pharoah in order to deliver baby Jewish boys. Indeed he says that they sang separately from the men so that their voices would be heard clearly, as they had had such a share in the miracles. And other commentators suggest that the men and women sang polyphonically, with the men initiating song and the women responding by repeating it, both parts equally important.

The song of Miriam as a response to military victory with dancing and the beating of drums, is part of a strand of women’s singing that can be found as a victorious celebration by women throughout bible (see also Judges 11:4; Jer.31:3; Psalm 68:26; Judith 15:12-13)

  1. Deborah the prophetess sings her song of victory

א וַתָּ֣שַׁר דְּבוֹרָ֔ה וּבָרָ֖ק בֶּן־אֲבִינֹ֑עַם בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹֽר: ב בִּפְרֹ֤עַ פְּרָעוֹת֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהִתְנַדֵּ֖ב עָ֑ם בָּרְכ֖וּ יְהֹוָֽה: ג שִׁמְע֣וּ מְלָכִ֔ים הַֽאֲזִ֖ינוּ רֹֽזְנִ֑ים אָֽנֹכִ֗י לַֽיהֹוָה֙ אָֽנֹכִ֣י אָשִׁ֔ירָה אֲזַמֵּ֕ר לַֽיהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ד יְהֹוָ֗ה בְּצֵֽאתְךָ֤ מִשֵּׂעִיר֙ בְּצַעְדְּךָ֙ מִשְּׂדֵ֣ה אֱד֔וֹם אֶ֣רֶץ רָעָ֔שָׁה גַּם־שָׁמַ֖יִם נָטָ֑פוּ גַּם־עָבִ֖ים נָ֥טְפוּ מָֽיִם: ה הָרִ֥ים נָֽזְל֖וּ מִפְּנֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֑ה זֶ֣ה סִינַ֔י מִפְּנֵ֕י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ו בִּימֵ֞י שַׁמְגַּ֤ר בֶּן־עֲנָת֙ בִּימֵ֣י יָעֵ֔ל חָֽדְל֖וּ אֳרָח֑וֹת וְהֹלְכֵ֣י נְתִיב֔וֹת יֵלְכ֕וּ אֳרָח֖וֹת עֲקַלְקַלּֽוֹת: ז חָדְל֧וּ פְרָז֛וֹן בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל חָדֵ֑לּוּ עַ֤ד שַׁקַּ֨מְתִּי֙ דְּבוֹרָ֔ה שַׁקַּ֥מְתִּי אֵ֖ם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ח יִבְחַר֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים חֲדָשִׁ֔ים אָ֖ז לָחֶ֣ם שְׁעָרִ֑ים מָגֵ֤ן אִם־יֵֽרָאֶה֙ וָרֹ֔מַח בְּאַרְבָּעִ֥ים אֶ֖לֶף בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ט לִבִּי֙ לְחֽוֹקְקֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַמִּֽתְנַדְּבִ֖ים בָּעָ֑ם בָּרְכ֖וּ יְהֹוָֽה: י רֹֽכְבֵי֩ אֲתֹנ֨וֹת צְחֹר֜וֹת יֹֽשְׁבֵ֧י עַל־מִדִּ֛ין וְהֹֽלְכֵ֥י עַל־דֶּ֖רֶךְ שִֽׂיחוּ: יא מִקּ֣וֹל מְחַֽצְצִ֗ים בֵּ֚ין מַשְׁאַבִּ֔ים שָׁ֤ם יְתַנּוּ֙ צִדְק֣וֹת יְהֹוָ֔ה צִדְקֹ֥ת פִּרְזֹנ֖וֹ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אָ֛ז יָֽרְד֥וּ לַשְּׁעָרִ֖ים עַם־יְהֹוָֽה: יב עוּרִ֤י עוּרִי֙ דְּבוֹרָ֔ה ע֥וּרִי ע֖וּרִי דַּבְּרִי־שִׁ֑יר ק֥וּם בָּרָ֛ק וּֽשֲׁבֵ֥ה שֶׁבְיְךָ֖ בֶּן־אֲבִינֹֽעַם:Judges 5

Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day, saying: When men let grow their hair in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly, bless the Eternal. Hear, O ye kings; give ear, O ye princes; I, to the Eternal will I sing; I will sing praise to the Eternal, the God of Israel. Eternal, when You went forth out of Seir, when You did march out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, the heavens also dropped, yea, the clouds dropped water. The mountains quaked at the presence of the Eternal, even Sinai at the presence of the Eternal, the God of Israel. In the days of Shamgar the son of Anat, in the days of Jael, the highways ceased, and the travellers walked through byways. The rulers ceased in Israel, they ceased, until you did arise, Deborah, that you did arise a mother in Israel. They chose new gods; then was war in the gates; was a shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel? My heart is toward the governors of Israel, that offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless ye the Eternal. Ye that ride on white asses, ye that sit on rich cloths, and ye that walk by the way, tell of it; Louder than the voice of archers, by the watering-troughs! there shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the Eternal, even the righteous acts of God’s rulers in Israel. Then the people of the Eternal went down to the gates. Awake, awake, Deborah; awake, awake, utter a song; arise, Barak, and lead your captivity captive, you son of Abinoam”.

3.Jeptha’s Daughter Judges 11:34ff meets her victorious father with timbrels and dancing

לד וַיָּבֹ֨א יִפְתָּ֣ח הַמִּצְפָּה֘ אֶל־בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְהִנֵּ֤ה בִתּוֹ֙ יֹצֵ֣את לִקְרָאת֔וֹ בְתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹל֑וֹת וְרַק֙ הִ֣יא יְחִידָ֔ה אֵֽין־ל֥וֹ מִמֶּ֛נּוּ בֵּ֖ן אוֹ־בַֽת: לה וַיְהִי֩ כִרְאוֹת֨וֹ אוֹתָ֜הּ וַיִקְרַ֣ע אֶת־בְּגָדָ֗יו וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אֲהָ֤הּ בִּתִּי֙ הַכְרֵ֣עַ הִכְרַעְתִּ֔נִי וְאַ֖תְּ הָיִ֣יתְ בְּעֹֽכְרָ֑י וְאָנֹכִ֗י פָּצִ֤יתִי־פִי֙ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֔ה וְלֹ֥א אוּכַ֖ל לָשֽׁוּב: לו וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֗יו אָבִי֙ פָּצִ֤יתָה אֶת־פִּ֨יךָ֙ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֔ה עֲשֵׂ֣ה לִ֔י כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר יָצָ֣א מִפִּ֑יךָ אַחֲרֵ֡י אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂה֩ לְךָ֙ יְהֹוָ֧ה נְקָמ֛וֹת מֵאֹיְבֶ֖יךָ מִבְּנֵ֥י עַמּֽוֹן: לז וַתֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אֶל־אָבִ֔יהָ יֵעָ֥שֶׂה לִּ֖י הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה הַרְפֵּ֨ה מִמֶּ֜נִּי שְׁנַ֣יִם חֳדָשִׁ֗ים וְאֵֽלְכָה֙ וְיָרַדְתִּ֣י עַל־הֶֽהָרִ֔ים וְאֶבְכֶּה֙ עַל־בְּתוּלַ֔י אָנֹכִ֖י וְרֵעֹיתָֽי [וְרֵעוֹתָֽי]: לח וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לֵ֔כִי וַיִּשְׁלַ֥ח אוֹתָ֖הּ שְׁנֵ֣י חֳדָשִׁ֑ים וַתֵּ֤לֶךְ הִיא֙ וְרֵ֣עוֹתֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֥בְךְּ עַל־בְּתוּלֶ֖יהָ עַל־הֶהָרִֽים: לט וַיְהִ֞י מִקֵּ֣ץ ׀ שְׁנַ֣יִם חֳדָשִׁ֗ים וַתָּ֨שָׁב֙ אֶל־אָבִ֔יהָ וַיַּ֣עַשׂ לָ֔הּ אֶת־נִדְר֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נָדָ֑ר וְהִיא֙ לֹא־יָדְעָ֣ה אִ֔ישׁ וַתְּהִי־חֹ֖ק בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל: מ מִיָּמִ֣ים ׀ יָמִ֗ימָה תֵּלַ֨כְנָה֙ בְּנ֣וֹת יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְתַנּ֕וֹת לְבַת־יִפְתָּ֖ח הַגִּלְעָדִ֑י אַרְבַּ֥עַת יָמִ֖ים בַּשָּׁנָֽה:

And Jephtha came to Mizpah to his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances; and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. And it came to pass, when he saw her that he rent his clothes, and said: ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are become my troubler; for I have opened my mouth to the Eternal, and I cannot go back.’ And she said to him: ‘My father, you have opened your mouth to the Eternal; do to me according to that which has proceeded out of your mouth; forasmuch as the Eternal has taken vengeance for you of your enemies, even of the children of Ammon.’ And she said to her father: ‘Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may depart and go down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions.’ And he said: ‘Go.’ And he sent her away for two months; and she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed; and she had not known man. And it was a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephtha the Gileadite four days in a year”

4.The women of the Cities of Israel sing their song of victory with dancing and timbrels   1 Samuel 18:6-7

     ו וַיְהִ֣י בְּבוֹאָ֗ם בְּשׁ֤וּב דָּוִד֙ מֵֽהַכּ֣וֹת אֶת־הַפְּלִשְׁתִּ֔י וַתֵּצֶ֨אנָה הַנָּשִׁ֜ים מִכָּל־עָרֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לָשִׁ֣ור [לָשִׁ֣יר] וְהַמְּחֹל֔וֹת לִקְרַ֖את שָׁא֣וּל הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ בְּתֻפִּ֥ים בְּשִׂמְחָ֖ה וּבְשָׁלִשִֽׁים: ז וַתַּֽעֲנֶ֛ינָה הַנָּשִׁ֥ים הַֽמְשַֽׂחֲק֖וֹת וַתֹּאמַ֑רְן ָ הִכָּ֤ה שָׁאוּל֙ בַּֽאֲלָפָ֔ו [בַּֽאֲלָפָ֔יו] וְדָוִ֖ד בְּרִֽבְבֹתָֽיו:

“And it came to pass as they came, when David returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with timbrels, with joy, and with three-stringed instruments. And the women sang one to another in their play, and said: Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands”

5.Psalm 68 vv26-27 the women sing and dance and play timbrels

 כו קִדְּמ֣וּ שָׁ֭רִים אַחַ֣ר נֹגְנִ֑ים בְּ֖ת֥וֹךְ עֲלָמ֣וֹת תּוֹפֵפֽוֹת: כז בְּֽ֭מַקְהֵלוֹת בָּרְכ֣וּ אֱלֹהִ֑ים יְ֝הֹוָ֗ה מִמְּק֥וֹר יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

 “The singers go before, the minstrels follow after, in the midst of damsels playing upon timbrels. ‘Bless ye God in full assemblies, even the Eternal, ye that are from the fountain of Israel.’”

  1. Judith 15: 8-13

Then Joachim the high priest, and the ancients of the children of Israel who dwelled in Jerusalem, came to behold the good things that God had showed to Israel, and to see Judith, and to salute her. And when they came to her, they blessed her with one accord, and said to her, You are the exaltation of Jerusalem, you are the great glory of Israel, you are the great rejoicing of our nation:  You have done all these things by your hand: you have done much good to Israel, and God is pleased therewith: blessed be you of the Almighty God for evermore. And all the people said, ‘So be it’.  And the people spoiled the camp the space of thirty days: and they gave to Judith Holofernes, his tent, and all his plate and beds and vessels, and all his stuff: and she took it and laid it on her mule; and made ready her carts, and laid them thereon.  Then all the women of Israel ran together to see her, and blessed her, and made a dance among them for her: and she took branches in her hand, and gave also to the women that were with her.  And they put a garland of olive upon her and her maid that was with her, and she went before all the people in the dance, leading all the women: and all the men of Israel followed in their armour with garlands, and with songs in their mouths.