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In the Footsteps of Heroic Women

Last week we began our reading of the Book of Exodus, and the beginning of our enslavement in Egypt. Moses is undoubtedly the most preeminent figure in the story as it unfolds, and indeed, henceforth through to the end of the Torah. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the most heroic figures of last week’s portion are women: Yocheved, the mother of Moses; Miriam, Moses’ sister; and the two midwives, Shifra and Puah. The cruel and despotic Pharaoh orders all Hebrew baby boys to be thrown into the Nile to drown, lest someday they rise up in combat against him. Shifra and Puah carry out their own personal resistance to this brutality by deliberately saving the Hebrew baby boys. When Yocheved gives birth to a baby boy, she hides him for a short while, but then takes desperate measures to save him. She places him in a wicker basket, wraps him in swaddling cloth, and enlists her daughter Miriam to follow him and watch over him as he floats down the river. He is found by the daughter of Pharaoh who pulls him out of the Nile and adopts him. Miriam volunteers to “find” her a wet nurse, and “finds” Yocheved, making it possible for Moses to live with his own family for a time. And thus in addition to the four women I have mentioned, we must mention the daughter of Pharaoh, known in the Midrashic tradition as “Bityah.” While she knew the baby was a Hebrew, she participated in saving him, and went on to raise him as her own beloved son.

The salvation of the Children of Israel begins with women – women who are not afraid to stand up to the power and brutality of Pharaoh.
This past Saturday was a remarkable day indeed. On the very Shabbat when we were reading the stories of Yocheved, Miriam, Shifra, Puah, and Bityah, a great “Women’s March” took place all over our country, and all over the world – millions of women, and men as well, marching shoulder to shoulder – to rise up against the intimidation and wrong-headed policies of the newly-installed Trump presidency.

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Women’s March in Washington D.C. 2017. Courtesy Wikimedia

(There were even 30 people marching in Antarctica!) A group of us left together from Union Temple after services and took the subway to East 14th Street in Manhattan, where we met up with several hundred Jews from the Downtown Kehilah, a consortium of liberal congregations in Lower Manhattan. We marched together up 2nd Avenue to 42nd Street, where we joined some 400,000 of our fellow New Yorkers in an unbelievable throng that stretched all across 42nd Street and then up 5th Avenue to Trump Tower. While we may have lost an election, we have not lost our values. The message was clear: we intend to uphold our values and our rights, and fight tooth and nail against those who would seek to undermine them.

Lest we forget, the day after the march, Sunday, January 22, was the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States. The decision put an end to underground networks and back-alley butchers, unwanted pregnancies, and risks to the physical and/or mental well-being of women and girls all over our country. Decisions over women’s reproductive lives were no longer the domain of elected officials, but rather the domain of women themselves – in consultation with their doctors and medical professionals, and, when appropriate, with their families and members of clergy. But the government is once again taking aim at the gamut of women’s health issues, particularly when it comes to reproductive choice. And while now the federal government is key, the state houses are critical as well, regarding the statutes in the health codes and criminal codes of individual states.

Here’s one way we New Yorkers can stand up to this now more imminent threat to women’s rights and integrity. As I have announced previously, on Monday, January 30, I am going to be in Albany at a Day of Action coordinated by Family Planning Advocates (FPA) in cooperation with Planned Parenthood of New York. I am a member of FPA’s Concerned Clergy for Choice. There is still a small window of opportunity for you to attend this important day of education and lobbying the members of the Assembly and State Senate. The information follows. I hope you will decide to attend, as we walk in the footsteps of the heroines of our people.

Graduation Day

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The fifth cohort of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative at graduation at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. (Rabbi Goodman is third from the left in 2nd row)

The highlight of this past week for me was the graduation of the fifth cohort of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative (fondly abbreviated as “RLI V”) from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. We are now officially Senior Rabbinic Fellows of the Institute. For the past three and a half years, I have joined 26 other rabbinic colleagues for a journey in learning, understanding, and deepening friendships, both among ourselves, and with the extraordinary Hartman faculty. We are women and men; Reform, Orthodox, Renewal, Conservative; different lengths and types of rabbinic experience; from Brooklyn, Manhattan, Teaneck, Great Neck, Princeton, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, Raleigh, Cincinnati, Austin, Miami, Toronto, Sydney, and Jerusalem. We have studied sources from the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Maimonides, Zohar, and contemporary Hebrew literature. We have listened to each other’s thoughts about the Jewish community, and to each other’s personal stories as well. We have tried be helpful when there were personal crises among us, and rejoiced when there were simchas. And, we helped each other through the Gaza War, with the comforting leadership of Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of the Hartman Institute. Praying together was rather challenging, as you might imagine, but we did find in music a modality of shared spiritual experience that touched us all very deeply. (I would note parenthetically that in general at Hartman, when there are people saying Kaddish, we consider it a mitzvah to help them form a minyan for Mincha, regardless of our individual prayer preferences.)

Our Torah portion records the death of Miriam the prophetess in the Wilderness of Zin. We remember that it was Miriam who led the women in song as the Israelites crossed through the Sea on dry land. We remember that it was Miriam who watched out for baby Moses as he floated in the basket down the Nile before being rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh. Tradition tells us that a miraculous well followed the people as they trudged through the scorchingly dry desert, and kept them from dying of thirst. But at the moment that Miriam died, the well disappeared and the Israelites suffered greatly.

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Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman’s Senior Rabbinic Fellow Certificate which contains these texts: “The disciples of the wise sit in manifold assemblies and occupy themselves with the Torah…Make your ear like a funnel… Make yourself a heart of many rooms. (Hagigah 3b; Tosefta 7.7)

On a metaphoric level, RLI has served as a well for those of us who lived it together. We have watered each other’s souls, along with the renewal and enlightenment provided by the extraordinary Hartman scholars. And we sang together often. At the moment when we realized we had reached the end of this particular journey, we experienced a great sadness. Would we suffer from stifling thirst? No, we concluded, of course not. We will always have the impulse to grow through study. But we know as well that we will also have each other, and the learning of Hartman, to find ongoing refreshment and growth.

We at Union Temple have experienced Hartman learning on a number of occasions now. I look forward to more of it this year, and in the future as we study together.

So I wish my colleagues MAZAL TOV, and YESHER KOACH, and I wish all of you, SHABBAT SHALOM.

The Voice of a Woman

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The Dance of Myriam by Marc Chagall. 1966. Musée national Marc Chagall, Nice, France.

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: “Sing to the Eternal, who has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.” (Exodus 15.20-21)

These are the last verses of the Song of Miriam, as the Israelites crossed the sea on dry land. The song is also called the Song of the Sea, and it begins with Moses as he leads all the Israelites in this song of praise to God. This Friday morning at our Service for the Conclusion of Passover, our cantor, Emma Goldin Lutz, will chant this song for us. I am grateful for every opportunity I have each year to either chant this song myself, or hear someone with as beautiful a voice as Emma’s chant it. I hope you will give yourselves that opportunity as well this Friday at 10:30AM. The text of Mi Chamocha, Who is like You, O God, that we know from all our evening and morning services, comes from this song.

There is a poignant irony, and for many, a bitter one as well, in this Song of Miriam. The irony is known to us by the phrase Kol Ishah Ervah. It is Talmudic shorthand for the concept that if a man hears the voice of a woman (kol ishah) raised in song, it is tantamount to his committing sexual impropriety, ervah literally meaning nakedness. Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron and Moses, would have blanched at such a law – a law written over a millennium after she led the women in song. This is the law that has driven, at least in part, the opposition to Women of the Wall, who have sought for 25 years now to hold morning services together at the Kotel Hama’aravi, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Read a fresh look at this Talmudic prohibition by Professor Aharon Amit, a scholar of the history of the Talmud at Bar Ilan University.

This past Sunday, on the second day of Passover, thousands of people flocked to the Kotel for the traditional Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. On the Festivals of Pesach and Sukkot, those men who are descended from priestly families come to the Kotel, stand in the men’s section, and raise their hands and voices to pronounce the blessing upon the people. When they raise their hands, their fingers are separated into 3 groups to form the letter shin, for Shaddai, one of the divine appellations. They also cover their heads with a tallit. For his portrayal of the character Spock on “Star Trek,” the late great actor Leonard Nimoy reached back into his experience as a child in synagogue, and brought this hand formation to accompany his own “Vulcan Salute.”

But this particular Sunday was a bit different in Jerusalem. In a move by Women of the Wall, those women who traced their ancestry back to priestly families, planned to raise their hands and cover their heads, as they too raised their voices to pronounce the Birkat Kohanim from the women’s section of the Kotel in a Birkat Kohanot. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Kotel, prohibited the women to raise their hands and voices, and the Kotel police cordoned off the women into a holding area, so they would not be seen or heard by other worshipers. Funding for the effort mounted by WOW for the Birkat Kohanot was provided by Leonard Nimoy’s estate. Read a news report of this incident.

If Miriam the prophetess had suddenly appeared at the Western Wall, I wonder what Rabbi Rabinowitz would have done. I suppose we’ll never know. What we do know is that those of us who are committed to equality for women in Jewish life, no matter where we live, will never relent in this ongoing movement.

Come to services this Friday and raise your voices with us.