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.
Time and time again in our history, we have relived that experience in one form or another, as we have fled from oppressive regimes and dangerous environments, often literally into the seas and the oceans. Our only hope was to find refuge in some far off place. As the Second World War loomed larger over Europe, and the Nazi concentration camps became the most feared places on Earth, our people looked for any way they could find to escape the threat that hung over them in Europe. Even after the War itself was over, our people were herded into DP camps, still hoping to find refuge and breathe the air of freedom.
Those of us who traveled to Israel together last May visited the grounds of Atlit, some 15 km south of Haifa. Atlit was a British detention camp, where Jewish refugees and survivors were interned during the years between 1940 and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. One year before the camp was opened, the British published a “White Paper” which limited the number of the Jewish immigrants allowed to enter Palestine to 75,000 over 5 years: 25,000 immediately and 10,000 for each of the following 5 years. Those caught trying to enter the country illegally were captured and interned at Atlit.
Atlit is an interesting place and an important piece of pre-State history. But it also is a stark reminder of the desperate plight of refugees, particularly as they travel the seas, searching for safety and security. While I’m sure many of our people on those refugee ships were hoping for a repeat performance of the splitting of the Sea, ultimately they had to rely on the courage and compassion of human beings. The message for us today is painfully clear. “You know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” Over and over again our Torah reminds us of the compassion that is required of us.
Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, is the centerpiece of our Torah portion this week. “I will sing to the LORD for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider He has hurled into the Sea.” (Exodus 15.1) From the outset, God is portrayed as a mighty warrior. Adonai ish milchamah, Adonai Shemo. (Exodus 15.2) The Jewish Publication Society translates this as: “The LORD, the Warrior – LORD is His name!” Ish literally means “man,” thus ish milchamah literally is a “man of war,” and this term appears in other translations. But God is certainly not a man. The actual intent of the expression ish milchamah connotes a profession, if you will. So ish milchamah is more properly translated as “warrior.” One way or the other, it is clear that the Shir presents God as a warrior. Whom is the God of Israel warring against? Obviously the primary opponent is Pharaoh. But in addition to Pharaoh’s pursuing armies, there is the Sea of Reeds as well. The Sea plays a major role in this poem as the backdrop to the war that God was waging against Pharaoh. The Sea, in fact, was a potential enemy of the Israelites until God prevailed over it by splitting it in two.
This is not to suggest that the Sea itself is a god of some sort, though in other ancient cultures there was indeed a god of the sea. In fact when we read this Shir, we need to be cognizant of surrounding cultures of the Ancient Near East. In the Mesopotamian myth of creation Enuma Elish, a great fight took place between the sea monster Tiamat and the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon, Marduk. Tiamat is, in a effect, a female warrior, and Marduk is a male warrior. Marduk defeated the sea monster, and was then anointed as King of the World. Likewise, the Canaanite god Baal was announced as King of the Gods when he defeated Yam, the god of the sea, and Nahar, the god of the river.
While the Bible rejects these gods, we have to assume that these traditions were in the background of Shirat Hayam. But the problem for the writer of the Shir is that Biblical religion could not speak about such mythical figures as Marduk and Baal as gods. For the Bible, there is only one God – the God of Israel, the Creator of the world. Set against the backdrop of the Ancient Near East, it was a revolutionary and transformative idea.
But eventually, the idea of God as a mighty warrior became problematic for Jewish tradition, as evidenced elsewhere in the Bible. Deutero-Isaiah, most notably, imagines a “dialogue” between the God of Israel and the Persian King Cyrus, who was probably a follower of Zoroastrianism. God refutes all other gods, and emerges as the one and only Creator of heaven and earth, and all that is therein: “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I the LORD do all these things. Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness; let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up also; I, the LORD, have created it.” ( 45.7-8) Note in these verses that God is not a “mighty Warrior,” but rather, an Oseh Shalom, the “Maker of Peace!”
In Isaiah, and also in Psalms, Zechariah, and elsewhere, we find the opposing portrayal of God as a “Maker of Peace.” So, is God a “Mighty Warrior” or a “Maker of Peace?” The Biblical answer is, both. If we take these opposing attributes metaphorically and apply them to ourselves as human beings, perhaps we can see that both are true. While sometimes the reality of human history and contemporary events forces us to be mighty warriors, our ultimate aspiration is to be pursuers of peace.
* This background was part of an extraordinary shiur (teaching) that I attended last year at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. It was presented by Bible Scholar Israel Knohl, who holds the Yehezkiel Kaufmann Chair of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University, and is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.