Sex & Gender, Torah

Mic’ing the Eshet Chayil: Resurrecting the Voices of Powerful Women in the Bible and Our World

by Noah Strauss

Detractors of Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley, aka, ‘The Squad‘, have relentlessly attacked them over the past year, targeting them with disproportionate amounts of vitriol. In singling out these four strong women, their critics attempt to reduce a movement to a moment, to frame the story as four unruly women, rather than a mass movement that enabled their election and successful governance, which the critics erase. This dog-piling is intended to silence them; it’s predicated on the idea that they will be unable to hold up under such relentless levels of scrutiny. This idea fails, because, as Fred Hampton said, “you can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail a revolution.”

The Torah has many instances of this story we hear often: male leaders failing to account for the power of organized women. The tradition teaches that the letters in the Torah are black fire and the spaces are white fire (Talmud Yerushalmi Shekalim 6:1/49d). This suggests that the spaces say just as much as the text itself. Sometimes what is most notable is what the text fails to describe. For example, the Torah does not describe for us the moments that must have occurred prior to Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the daughters of Zelophehad, approaching the tent of meeting (Numbers 27). It does not depict the crucial conversations they must have had with other women that showed them they were not alone in their frustration at being unable to inherit property or carry on their family name. It does not tell us of the stories relayed that convinced these women to take action not only for themselves, but for other women. We do not hear the vow the sisters made to go together instead of alone, though one of them could have represented the familial issue to the assembly. The portion does not tell us of the moment the sisters realized they were stronger collectively than alone.  The Rabbinic tradition fills in just those gaps, drawing attention to the white fire in the story, the crucial relationship building and movement building that must have preceded the sisters’ address to Moses.

There is a consistent tendency in progressive movements to discount the power of organized women and to simplify a history of organizing and relationship building down to a single moment or individual. It denies the thousands of voices, generations, and stories of women that contributed to this breaking point, and in turn denies their agency. It erases the absolute necessity of collective organizing. This is not a moment; it’s the movement.

The tendency to downplay the power of organized women is also woven through the response to the first woman who comes forward to speak her truth about being assaulted, and/or abused. She is discredited; this rests on the assumption that she is the only victim of her assailant. However, sexual predators and abusers exhibit patterns of behavior, and they create or find conditions in which to prey on potential victims. There is never just one victim, and there will always be other women who come forward because of the courage of the first. Discrediting the first discourages and erases the others.

It is similar to the story of Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus 1:15-21), who autonomously took the liberatory first steps when they disobeyed Pharaoh and allowed Hebrew sons to live. Shiphrah and Puah cited the strength of the Hebrew women, which allowed them to deliver their babies so quickly that the midwives did not even have time to arrive and take their sons (Exodus 1:19). The significance of the midwives’ courageous act of solidarity is heightened, according to the numerous traditional and modern commentaries who understand the midwives to have been non-Jewish. In making this choice, they allowed Moses the first opportunity for life.

Moses’s mother, Yocheved, saved his life a second time, when she placed him in a basket in the water (Exodus 2:3). Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, saved him for the third time when she brought him out of the water (Exodus 2:5-6). Multiple women made Moses’s life possible, and in doing so allowed for his leadership to come into being. The liberation movement did not begin with Moses; it began with the revolutionary decision of two women working together across lines of difference to save the lives of children. This act of rebellion is powerful in and of itself, regardless of the outcome. There is dignity in fighting for your people. It was permissible for Puah and Shiphrah to deceive Pharaoh because they did so in order to save lives.

The story of Miriam, dancing with timbrels with the women (Exodus 15:20-21), also comes to mind. Later, Miriam criticized Moses, asserting that others should have the authority to lead as well (Numbers 12:1-2). She was punished with leprosy (ibid., 10) but the community did not leave her behind (ibid., 15). Miriam’s actions could not have happened in a vacuum. There must have been unmentioned bonds and conversations between this group of women who danced together. She was not speaking up only on her own behalf. In addition, the Talmud (Ta’anit 9a) teaches that a supply of water follows the Jewish people as they leave Egypt and wander in the desert, and this supply of water disappears when Miriam dies. The continued presence of water is a symbol of the role of women in making Moses’s journey possible and sustaining the community. There is a common denominator in these three stories: There is room for women’s dissent.

These stories provide inspiration and guidance for the watershed moment we are living in, in which patriarchal misogynist systems are meeting their match in the collective power of organized women. Men’s failure to account for the strength of organized women will be their downfall, as they’ll never see us coming.

Noah Strauss is a queer trans writer and community organizer. Their writing has been featured in The Forward, Lilith, New Voices, Jewish Currents, and Jewschool. 

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