Celebrating women

By Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani

Notwithstanding the many halakhot that govern Jewish ritual and ethical behaviour, there are aspects of Judaism that are universal in character. 

This is borne out by the fact that the Torah does not begin with the stories of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs, but rather with accounts of the creation of the world and humanity. Indeed, Abraham and Sarah are only mentioned at the end of the eleventh chapter of Genesis. 

It is noteworthy that there are two versions of the Creation narrative in the Torah and that in popular telling of the Creation story the two accounts are conflated into one. According to many, the Bible relates that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh; and that God created Adam (Man) on the sixth day and later took a rib from him and created Chava (Woman). 

The division of the act of creation into six days and the creation of Shabbat on the seventh is found in the first chapter of the Torah, but the idea that the first human was exclusively male and that God created the first female from his rib is expressed in the second version of creation (Genesis 2). According to the first account of creation, God fashioned men and women at the same time (Genesis 1:27). Human beings were the last life forms created by God — everything that was created before led up to this significant moment, the creation of all human genders betzelem Elohim, “in the image of God”

In the second chapter of Genesis God creates Adam before creating the animals. According to this account of Creation, the animals were created because the single (male) human was lonely, and God wanted to create companions for him. Only after discovering that the animals were not suitable companions for the human, does God put Adam to sleep, remove a tzeila from him and use it to build a female counterpart. For centuries this version of the creation of humanity was used as a reason to suppress women — after all women are only a small part of men because the Hebrew word tzeila is generally understood to mean a ‘rib. A corollary of this statement is that a man is incomplete without a woman. 

But the word tzeila can also mean ‘side’, thus one could understand that God used more than just a rib from Adam as the foundation for creating Chavah (Eve). This translation of tzeila reconciles the second account of the creation of humankind with the first, namely that all genders are equal and must be treated as such.

The strength and conviction of the Matriarchs and other women are evident in the early stories of our ancestors. Sarah’s practical solution to her inability to conceive ensured that Abraham fathered a son. Sarah was later to conceive and give birth to a son of her own in her old age. Rebekah’s resolve guaranteed that Abraham and Isaac’s legacy was continued by Jacob, and Leah and Rachel put aside their competitiveness and co-operated to safeguard the continuity of the family (Bilhah and Zilpah playing no small part).

The opening chapter of the Book of Exodus describes the moral strength and courage of Shifra and Puah, two Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh’s command to kill all baby boys in his attempt to rid his kingdom of the Hebrews.

If not for the bravery and ingenuity of Yocheved and Miriam and the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter (whom the rabbis named Batya), Moses would not have survived to become the liberator, lawgiver, teacher and ultimate prophet of the Israelites. 

Miriam was a member of the triumvirate of leaders of the Israelites during their forty-year journey in the wilderness. She is explicitly called a prophetess in the Torah (Exodus 15:20) and the description of her leading the women in song and dance conjures up the image of her leadership. She was much loved by the people, and lead from amongst the community, unlike Moses who led from the front, speaking to God, legislating laws and giving commands. When Miriam was struck with tzara’t (Numbers 12:10) and had to be quarantined, the people refused to continue on their march until she had completed her period of isolation. 

The Talmud teaches (Ta’anit 9a) that due to the merit of Miriam the Israelites had a constant supply of water. Liberal Jews acknowledge the importance of Miriam and all women for their contribution to Jewish life and values by adding a kos shel Miriam to our Pesach seder ritual. After filling Elijah’s cup, we drink water from the Cup of Miriam. The Talmud lists six other prophetesses — Sarah, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther (Megillah 14a) and mentions other strong, pious and learned women from the rabbinic era including Rabbi Akiva’s wife Rachel who encouraged him to study Torah, Beruriah, wife of Rabbi Meir, who taught her husband, his colleagues and students many moral truths, and Rabbi Abaye’s mother who was knowledgeable in the use of healing amulets and herbs.

August in South Africa is women’s month when we pay tribute to the women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 to protest the extension of the Pass Laws to women. It is therefore fitting that we acknowledge the actions, insights and teachings of Jewish women both past and present that contribute to the growth and evolution of Torah and tikkun olam.

Temple Israel www.templeisrael.co.za

• Published in the August 2022 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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