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.

 

Vayakhel Pekudei:What women do and Why women are rewarded as they carry the burden of faith into the future

For the last few weeks it has not been easy to find the women in the Torah readings, but now in Vayakhel the women are up front and unmissable. The mishkan/tabernacle is being made as a response to the failings of the people that led to the creation of the golden calf, an idol to comfort the people in the absence of Moses while he was away on Sinai sequestered with God.

It has become abundantly clear that the people are not yet ready for a God with no physical presence or aide-memoire. The mishkan will remind the people that God is dwelling among them. It is a powerful symbol they will carry around with them as they go on their journey. It will, so to speak, keep the people on the religious straight and narrow.

The details of the mishkan have been given in the last chapters – long dry lists of materials and artefacts. Now the text warms up with the human and emotional dimension:

וַיָּבֹ֕אוּ כָּל־אִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ וְכֹ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נָֽדְבָ֨ה רוּח֜וֹ אֹת֗וֹ הֵ֠בִ֠יאוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמַ֨ת יְהֹוָ֜ה לִמְלֶ֨אכֶת אֹ֤הֶל מוֹעֵד֙ וּלְכָל־עֲבֹ֣דָת֔וֹ וּלְבִגְדֵ֖י הַקֹּֽדֶשׁ:

 “And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing, and brought the Eternal’s offering, for the work of the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments.” (35:21)

All the people for whom this project truly mattered, everyone who was invested in the creation of the reminder of the divine, brought their gifts. Gifts of valuable materials, gifts of their time, gifts of their dedication to make this work.

And then comes the strangest of verses.  (35:22)

וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֖ים עַל־הַנָּשִׁ֑ים כֹּ֣ל ׀ נְדִ֣יב לֵ֗ב הֵ֠בִ֠יאוּ חָ֣ח וָנֶ֜זֶם וְטַבַּ֤עַת וְכוּמָז֙ כָּל־כְּלִ֣י זָהָ֔ב וְכָל־אִ֕ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֵנִ֛יף תְּנוּפַ֥ת זָהָ֖ב לַֽיהוָֹֽה:

And they came, the men upon the women, as many as were willing-hearted, and brought nose-rings, and ear-rings, and signet-rings, and girdles, all jewels of gold; even every man that brought an offering of gold to the Eternal.

The construction of the verse is notable and odd. The phrasing “hanashim al hanashim – the men upon the women” suggests that the women carried the men, brought them along with them, that they came first with their jewellery, and only then did the men bring their gifts. All of the emphases on the voluntary nature of the donations, the repetitions that only those who wanted to give did so, culminates in the idea that it is the women who are keen to give their valuables in the service of God, that the men were carried along by the enthusiasm of the women.

The role of the women is reinforced a few verses later:

וְכָל־אִשָּׁ֥ה חַכְמַת־לֵ֖ב בְּיָדֶ֣יהָ טָו֑וּ וַיָּבִ֣יאוּ מַטְוֶ֗ה אֶֽת־הַתְּכֵ֨לֶת֙ וְאֶת־הָ֣אַרְגָּמָ֔ן אֶת־תּוֹלַ֥עַת הַשָּׁנִ֖י וְאֶת־הַשֵּֽׁשׁ: כו וְכָ֨ל־הַנָּשִׁ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָשָׂ֥א לִבָּ֛ן אֹתָ֖נָה בְּחָכְמָ֑ה טָו֖וּ אֶת־הָֽעִזִּֽים:

And all the women who were wise-hearted did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, the blue, and the purple, the scarlet, and the fine linen. And all the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun the goats’ hair. (35:25-26)

The vignette continues with yet another verse emphasising the role of the women in this work:

כָּל־אִ֣ישׁ וְאִשָּׁ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָדַ֣ב לִבָּם֘ אֹתָם֒ לְהָבִיא֙ לְכָל־הַמְּלָאכָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהוָֹ֛ה לַֽעֲשׂ֖וֹת בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֑ה הֵבִ֧יאוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל נְדָבָ֖ה לַֽיהוָֹֽה:

Every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for all the work, which the Eternal had commanded by the hand of Moses to be made, the children of Israel brought a freewill-offering to the Eternal v29

The repetition of the activities of the women, of their enthusiasm, their public role in both providing materials and in working those materials for use in the mishkan is surely telling us something important.

The commentators of course have noticed this. While Rashi in the tenth century plays down the idea of ha’anashim al hanashim meaning anything more than the men came with the women, the tosafists of the 12th and 13th century build on the idea of the women carrying the men along. They note the list of jewellery described were essentially feminine possessions and say that the verse is alluding to the men taking the women to bring their jewellery under the impression that they would not want to give it away. Imagine their surprise then when the women are not only willing to give their jewellery for the mishkan, they are actually pleased to do so. This stands in direct opposition to the earlier incident when jewellery was given to the priesthood – the incident of the golden calf, when the midrash tells us – and the tosafists remind us – that the women did not want to give their jewellery to such an enterprise, seeing through the project for the idolatry it was, and the men had torn the jewellery from the ears, fingers and necks of their reluctant womenfolk.

This midrashic interpretation places the women in the role of truly understanding the religious response, and the men showing less emotional intelligence. It is supported some verses later in the creation of the mishkan when the women give their mirrors for the copper washstand.

וַיַּ֗עַשׂ אֵ֚ת הַכִּיּ֣וֹר נְח֔שֶׁת וְאֵ֖ת כַּנּ֣וֹ נְחֹ֑שֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת֙ הַצֹּ֣בְאֹ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֣ר צָֽבְא֔וּ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד:

And [Betzalel] made the washstand of copper, and the base thereof of copper, of the mirrors of the Tzevaot/ legions of serving women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting. (Ex 38:8)

Who were these women who did service at the door of the Tent of Meeting? What was the service that they did? And why did they have copper mirrors?

They appear also in the Book of Samuel (1Sam:2:22) Now Eli was very old; and he heard all that his sons did unto all Israel, and how that they lay with the women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting.

In both occasions the women are at the door of the tent of meeting, the place where people brought their vows, where the priesthood purified themselves before entering, a liminal space of enormous importance.  The verb צֹּ֣בְא֔ tzaddi beit alef is best known to us as something God does – We often call God Adonai Tzeva’ot, the God of the Hosts/Legions – it  has a military context rather than a religious one.

But in the Book of Numbers we find the verb used to describe something else – not a military action but the service of the Levites done in and around the Mishkan. This verb is the priestly activity, a ministry, something done by the members of the tribe of Levi, whose role is to ensure that the priesthood is able to fulfil its sacred function. (see Numbers 4:23, 35, 39, 43 and 8:24)

So while there is a tendency in tradition to see these women as low status, cultic prostitutes or camp followers, the text does not support this view and indeed it is possible to read it quite differently. The women who give their mirrors to have the polished copper washstand that is so important in the system of ritual purity are women of status and dignity, whose work in ministry is more important to them than what are often seen as the more usual girly activities of makeup and grooming.

The midrash (Tanhuma) again picks up the story of the mirrors, and while it does not give the women any status in the priestly activities (instead ignoring their position at the doorway), it does give them some real honour by telling the story that in Egypt, after the decree of Pharaoh that all baby boys would be killed, the men became despondent. Slavery had sapped their strength and their emotional resilience and they had decided not to create a stake in the future but to live separately from their wives and desist from intercourse or procreation. The women however were not prepared for this to happen, and so they used their mirrors to make themselves as beautiful and irresistible as possible, then going to their husbands in order to seduce them and become pregnant.

It was the role of the mirrors in this activity that is so important. The women had used them in order to show their faith in the future, they were a symbol not only of sexual attractiveness and sensual preparations, they were a symbol of faith, of resilience, of the emotional and religious intelligence sadly lacking in the men.

Rashi quotes this midrash at this verse, and goes even further. He says that Moses [and Betzalel] did not want to take the mirrors (they are listed separately from the earlier donations), presumably because they associated them with sensuality, with women’s actions to initiate sex, but Rashi tells us that God ordered him to take them.

It seems that God is less fearful of women’s bodies and sexuality than Moses was. Indeed God is reported to have said “These mirrors are more precious to Me than anything else”

Because the mishkan is said to have been dedicated on Rosh Chodesh Nisan (the beginning of the new month of Nisan), there is a tradition that the women should be rewarded for their faith, their resilience, their innovation and proactive donations, and given a special holiday on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Over time it appears that every Rosh Chodesh has become  women’s special days, when no work is done and women celebrate and enjoy the time.  Many women and women’s groups celebrate Rosh Chodesh together, but I wonder how many realise that the root of this tradition is the power and resilience of the women when the men failed to live up to what was necessary. I wonder how many women realise that the ease  which the women had to initiate intimacy, the ministry which they offered at the liminal border between the sacred space and the secular space, the understanding the women showed to not offer their jewellery for idolatry but to run to offer it for the mishkan – all of this is in our tradition and deserves to be highlighted. For it isn’t only the women for whom this story is unfamiliar, it is particularly those men who have studied and who know these texts but who choose not to teach or to publicise them.

If we learn anything from these verses is that the women had a role every bit as important and active as the men, that they were not only routinely alongside but that they were also on occasions the leaders, the ones who carried the flow, the agenda setters.

Vayakhel means to bring together a community. Pekudei has a number of meanings, to visit, to account, to calculate, to encounter. When we read these texts we need to remember that a community is accounted, encountered and needs ALL its members.

Terumah: the Shechinah dwells amongst us but are we driving Her away?

There is no woman in parashat Terumah. Indeed there is barely any human presence at all as the bible instructs the people via Moses about the materials needed to build the tabernacle that will travel with them in the wilderness – the mishkan, and all its vessels and accoutrements.

There is no woman, but there is God, and it is this aspect of God that I would like to focus upon.

In Chapter 25 v8 we read

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם:

And they shall make me a mikdash/special place and I will dwell among them/in them.

The notion of God dwelling among/within the people of Israel is a powerful one, one that removes God from any ties to geography or history, but allows God to move freely wherever the people may be. And this idea of God is given a name, one not found in bible itself but found extensively in rabbinic literature post 70CE – Shechinah.

The Shechinah is an explicitly feminine aspect of God. Whereas many of our other names for God imply transcendence, a God-beyond us, the Shechinah dwells right here where we are. Talmud reminds us that “When ten gather for prayer, there the Shechinah rests” (Sanhedrin 39a, Berachot 6a). That “The Shechinah dwells over the head of the bed of the person who is ill” (Shabbat 12b).  It tells us that wherever we go, this aspect of God goes with us – “wherever they were exiled, the Shechinah went with them” (Meg 29a), and yet this aspect of God also remains in Israel waiting for our return “The Shechinah never departs from the Western Wall” (Ex.Rabbah 2:2)

The Shechinah is experienced by people engaged in study or prayer together, and by people who engage in mitzvot such as caring for the poor and giving tzedakah. It is said that She is the driver that caused prophets to prophesy, that enabled David to write his Psalms. She is the enabler of translating our feelings into words and actions, a conduit to relationship with the immanent God. She is associated with joy and with security. It is no accident She makes an appearance in the bedtime prayer for children – the four angels Michael, Gavriel, Uriel and Raphael invoked to protect the four directions, and the Shechinah to be at the head of the sleeping child.

The Shechinah is the constant presence, the nurturer of the Jewish soul. She is with us in times of joy and she is with us in times of suffering and pain. She connects Creation with Revelation – the universal with the particularly Jewish, the sacred with the mundane.

This week as I was mulling over the sacred feminine embodied in the Talmudic and mystical traditions, I joined in the prayer of the Women at the Wall for Rosh Chodesh Adar, albeit by ipad from thousands of miles away. I sang with them and followed the prayers as best I could, for there was a terrible cacophony picked up by the technology that sometimes threatened to overwhelm this joyful female prayer. Some in the men’s side of the area had turned their loudspeakers directly towards the praying women in order to drown out their song. Some in the women’s side (an artificially inflated crowd of seminary and high school girls bussed in for the morning by their institutions in order to prevent the Women of the Wall getting anywhere near the Wall itself) were blowing whistles loudly in the direction of the women – including the young batmitzvah – who were praying with grace and with joy.

The spectacle – for it was a spectacle – was painful in the extreme. Jews were determinedly drowning out the voices of other Jews in prayer and seemed to think that this was authentic religion, rather than a particularly vile form of sectarianism with little if any connection to any Jewish custom or law.

And it made me think of the Shechinah who never leaves that Western Wall, the remaining stones of the Temple. The Wall itself was built as part of the expansion of the area surrounding the second Temple in order to artificially create a larger flattened area for the sacred buildings above.

According to the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 21b), the Second Temple lacked five things which had been in Solomon’s Temple, namely, the Ark, the cherubim, the sacred fire, the Shechinah and the Urim and Tummim.

It is easy to see that the Ark of the Covenant, the Cherubim, the sacred fire, the Priestly and mysterious Urim and Tummim were lost by the time of the second Temple – they were artefacts which could disappear. But the Shechinah – that fascinates me. The redactor of Talmud, clearly anxious about the statement, continues the narrative by saying that they were not gone, just less present than before.

It is clear to me that the artefacts are gone and lost to history, replaced by our system of prayer and study. But I wonder so about the Shechinah in the light of the events that are now almost normal at the base of the remaining Western Wall.  For while the midrash may tell us that the Shechinah is there, waiting for us to return from our exile; While it may say that She is waiting to be among us, to welcome us, never departing from the Western Wall, waiting to connect us to our deepest selves, to link us to a God of comfort and compassion – if she was, she must have had her head in her hands and been close to despair at what She saw.

When people pray and study together, when they enact law to help the society, when they are sick and frightened and when they are doing mitzvot that bring joy and comfort, there the Shechinah will be. But when they abuse their power, ignore the other, hold only disdain and triumphalism as their values, it is no wonder that the Shechinah finds it hard to hang around. She wasn’t there in the Second Temple, rife as it was with political machinations and abuses of power. And I only caught a glimpse of her yesterday at Rosh Chodesh Adar when so many Jews were at the Wall, but so few were there to pray from the depths of their hearts in joy. I saw her flee from the shrieking women and men determined to drown out prayer. I saw her flee from the passivity of a police force refusing to intervene to protect those who needed their help.

But I saw her in the faces of the group of women celebrating a bat mitzvah together in song and dedication, in the sounds of a young girl reading Torah with grace and mature sensitivity.

http://www.jta.org/2017/02/27/news-opinion/israel-middle-east/hundreds-of-yeshiva-seminary-students-disrupt-women-of-the-wall-service

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.

Vayetzei: Rachel and Leah show us a thing or too, but we have to look closely to notice

This sidra is rich in narrative tales. Fleeing from the anger of Esau at the theft of his blessing,  Jacob goes to Haran. On the way he dreams of a ladder reaching up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending it. God appears to him and promises him protection, children, and the land on which he is lying. Jacob vows that if God fulfils the promise, God will be his God.

Falling in love with his cousin Rachel, daughter of his mother’s brother Laban he offers to work for seven years in order to marry her, but Laban has two daughters and he switches the bride so that Jacob unknowingly marries Leah.  Told that the older has precedence over the younger  Jacob agrees he will marry Rachel a week later, and work another seven years for her.

Leah bears Jacob four sons, but Rachel does not conceive and so gives her maidservant Bilhah as a concubine. Bilhah conceives two sons then Leah gives Jacob her maidservant Zilpah who also has two sons. Leah bears three more children, two sons and a daughter (Dina).  Rachel finally conceives and has a son, Joseph.

Wishing to return home Jacob agrees with Laban that he will be to build a flock for himself from the herds of Laban as recompense for his twenty years of service, and uses selective breeding in order to build a huge herd. Then, while Laban is away, they flee towards Canaan. But before leaving Rachel quietly steals the household idols. . Laban pursues them but is warned in a dream not to take revenge. A search for the idols proves fruitless as Rachel hides them and claims ritual uncleanness. Jacob promises Laban that whoever took the idols will die. Jacob and Laban make a peace agreement between themselves.

Jacob left Canaan a tricksy but vulnerable young man, exiled to the homeland of his mother for his own safety. By the end of the sidra he is still pretty tricksy and still somewhat vulnerable, but he is also wealthy and the patriarch of a large family of his own.

He leaves Haran, not because his mother has finally sent for him as she promised all those years ago, but because he is increasingly aware of the fragility of his situation.  Married to the two daughters of his uncle Laban and father to eleven sons and at least one daughter, one might think that he has deep roots in the area, but no – he is the object of suspicion and mistrust. He overhears the sons of Laban saying: ‘Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s; and of that which was our father’s has he gotten all this wealth.’  Laban too no longer responds to him as he had before. So God tells him: “Return to the land of your forbears, and to your birthplace; and I will be with you.’

What Jacob does then is very interesting – he calls both sisters out to the fields where his flocks of animals are (calling Rachel before Leah) and he seems to justify to them what he wants to do. He tells them that Laban has changed towards him, but that he has always been a good servant to their father even though Laban had mocked him and continually altered the wages due to him. But God had been steadfastly with Jacob and had organised that whatever Laban had agreed with Jacob in payment had surprisingly turned out in Jacob’s favour so that Jacob had been able to build up a large herd of animals from Laban’s flock. He goes so far as to say that God had ‘redeemed’ the animals and given them to Jacob. (31:9) and that an angel had drawn his attention to the vow at Beit El, and how God had been true to this vow, and that now it was time to go home to the land of his birth.

The sisters appear to believe both in the covenant made with God, and that it was God who had given their husband the great wealth he had amassed.

They  answer together (the verb is singular indicating the unity of the response)  and this reply is revealing.

“And Rachel and Leah answered and said to him: ‘Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not accounted by him as strangers? For he has sold us, and has also quite devoured our price. For all the riches which God has taken away from our father, that is ours and our children’s. Now then, whatsoever God has said to you, do.’

וַתַּ֤עַן רָחֵל֙ וְלֵאָ֔ה וַתֹּאמַ֖רְנָה ל֑וֹ הַע֥וֹד לָ֛נוּ חֵ֥לֶק וְנַֽחֲלָ֖ה בְּבֵ֥ית אָבִֽינוּ:  הֲל֧וֹא נָכְרִיּ֛וֹת נֶחְשַׁ֥בְנוּ ל֖וֹ כִּ֣י מְכָרָ֑נוּ וַיֹּ֥אכַל גַּם־אָכ֖וֹל אֶת־כַּסְפֵּֽנוּ: כִּ֣י כָל־הָעֹ֗שֶׁר אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצִּ֤יל אֱלֹהִים֙ מֵֽאָבִ֔ינוּ לָ֥נוּ ה֖וּא וּלְבָנֵ֑ינוּ וְעַתָּ֗ה כֹּל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָמַ֧ר אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֵלֶ֖יךָ עֲשֵֽׂה:

The sons of Laban had clearly been disgruntled that Jacob was managing to breed a wonderful flock for himself from their father’s animals, his payment for the years of work, although this had not been negotiated in advance – indeed Jacob had originally offered to work in order to marry Rachel.

But the daughters of Laban also had a view about the transaction between their father and their husband. They had been hoping for some inheritance it seems, some part of their father’s wealth; but it has become clear that this was a vain hope, there would be no wealth coming their way. It is not entirely clear whether this is because Laban has been impoverished by the actions of Jacob or whether they had finally understood the way their father used his money to take power, promising but never delivering, changing the terms of the deal on a whim – that while they might continue to hope for it their father would simply not give them anything.

And worse than this, Laban has not behaved properly in the matter of their marriage – they would have expected there to be a dowry for each of them, monies that should be spent on them. While it is true that Jacob came without much wealth, but he worked an unusual and substantial number of years for each woman, earning Laban serious income. That wealth was not put aside for the use of the women; instead Laban had consumed it immediately, leaving nothing for the daughters. He has treated them as possessions and not as family and the women are not happy. They throw in their lot with Jacob and with his God, understanding that God has rebalanced the wealth, taking what should anyway have been theirs from their father and giving it to them and to their children.

Their final phrase: “v’ata, kol asher amar Elohim elecha, aseh” is redolent. It is a foretaste of Sinai when the people say , kol asher dibber Adonai na’aseh (Exodus 19:8) – All that God tells us we shall do.” It echoes the narrative that reminds us that Moses followed the instructions of his father in law Yitro just before Sinai (Exodus 18:24) when we are told that “va’ya’as kol asher amar” – Moses listened to the words of his father in law and did everything that he had said”. It echoes too the instruction to Abraham anxious that he has been told to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael, when God says to him “All that Sarah says to you, obey her voice : kol asher tomar elecha Sarah, shma b’kolah”

Rachel and Leah are not only giving permission, they are giving instructions – “whatever God tells you to do, then you must do it”. It is quite a different relationship than Jacob had had before with God, when he had woken from his dream aware of the presence of God, yet still with enough bravado to hold God to account – “IF you do everything you say and IF you bring me back safely, THEN you can be my God”.

Rachel and Leah are serious protagonists in Jacob’s leaving Haran and returning to Canaan. They are not simply ‘the household’ – indeed they are resisting staying in a place where they are in danger of having to be subservient to their father.

Jacob collects his household and his wealth, puts his wives and sons on camels, and taking advantage of Laban’s absence he sets off for his homeland. But the real action that follows is that of Rachel – she takes the teraphim, the household Gods that we are specifically told were her father’s.

Did she take them for spite? Did she take them because she believed in them? Did she take them because she feared being homesick, or in order to prevent Laban from invoking those gods against her husband and family? Did she take them as a symbol of the inheritance she knew she was not going to receive?  This last question interests me most, for the possession of the teraphim seems to have indicated that the owner would then also possess the power and benefits of the first born in terms of property inheritance. (see Nuzi Tablet Gadd 51 pub 1926 CJ Gadd)

Just as Jacob had stolen the birth right of his first-born brother Esau, Rachel symbolically steals the birth right of her brothers. She is no passive figure here but is looking out for the rights of her children and grandchildren into the future.  She hides the teraphim successfully, taking control of her destiny, and Laban is unable to find them. It is her moment of triumph, safeguarding the future, until she is undermined unwittingly by her husband Jacob. For sadly the tale ends badly, she will die giving birth to her second son Benjamin as in protesting his own innocence Jacob has unwittingly brought a curse down upon her.

When first we read the sidra of Vayetzei we see the powerful chemistry between Rachel and Jacob, we see the terrible pain of Leah who wants her husband to love her and who each time is rejected, we see the usage of the two women concubines Bilhah and Zilpah. It takes a while to look beneath that first appearance of women as objects  and see the subversion and the taking control that is going on.

Rachel hides the teraphim under the saddle of the camel and says to her father “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise up before you; for the manner of women is upon me.’ And he searched, but he did not find the teraphim.”

Ki lo uchal lakum mipanecha, ki derech nashim li, vay’hapess v’lo matza et hateraphim

כִּ֣י ל֤וֹא אוּכַל֙ לָק֣וּם מִפָּנֶ֔יךָ כִּי־דֶ֥רֶךְ נָשִׁ֖ים לִ֑י וַיְחַפֵּ֕שׂ וְלֹ֥א מָצָ֖א

אֶת־הַתְּרָפִֽים:

She says to him that she is not able to rise up before him. This can be read two ways – that she cannot get up because she has her period (though why that should stop her getting up is unclear), or that she is unable to rise before him for another reason – and the one she gives is that she has her period. But could it be that she does not want to pay him the honour of rising before him – she is simply unable to offer him such respect now she has seen him for what he is and has rejected him?

He searches, but he does not find the teraphim. Hers is the last place they could be hidden, everywhere else has already been searched. She is unable to show him any respect, he in turn does not find either the teraphim or the reason she does not want to show him any regard. He is blind to any symbolism or deeper meaning, and the control – and the teraphim – remain in Rachel’s hands.

I heard someone recently describe the actions of the women in Genesis as manipulative, devious and unscrupulous. This in response to studying the actions of Jacob’s mother Rebecca, who organised for him to get the blessing by use of clothing and cooking.  The women in bible are indeed active in getting the narrative moving, they sometimes cause it to take an unusual path, they sometimes second guess God, they sometimes even nudge God into long delayed action. But this is not devious or unscrupulous or any negative connotation – the women in bible are active, creative, powerful and thoughtful. They hear the voice of God and they see the hand of God. That the text records their actions, albeit with the spotlight frequently turned away, is important. And it is important that in this generation we return the spotlight to those players who are not always seen on the stage, for they are our models and our matriarchs and they deserve our attention.

 

 

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.