The Mothers of Redemption (Parashat Shemot)

The author begins by arguing that the women of this portion are the heroes – the midwives Shifra and Puah as well as Pharaoh’s daughters Yocheved and Miriam. He discusses what it means for Harvey Fierstein, an out gay man, to play Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and compares Moses’ conversations with God to those of Tevye. He concludes with a discussion of Moses’ struggle as the leader of the Israelites, and the various stories of “coming out” in this portion.

January 13, 2007

By Rabbi Laurence Edwards

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Parashat Shemot
The Mothers of Redemption
by Rabbi Laurence Edwards on Saturday January 13, 2007
24 Tevet 5767
Exodus 1:1-6:1


It Begins with the Women

As we begin the Book of Exodus, let us first consider the midwives, Shifrah and Puah. The process of redemption does not begin with divine intervention, but with the first recorded act of non-violent civil disobedience. Like so many progressive steps in human history, it once again begins with the women — from Eve’s decision to taste the fruit to the (March 1999 Reform) Women’s Rabbinic Network resolution on rabbinic officiation at same-sex weddings. Nahum Sarna, a modern biblical scholar, calls our attention to the fact that while the name of the Pharaoh is not recorded, the names of the midwives appear in this week’s parasha. The Bible , it seems, is less concerned with royal records, and more concerned with the hastening moral force that flows through human events, often from below.

So redemption begins in an act of brave resistance. Shifrah and Puah, whether they were Israelites, Egyptians, or Egyptian converts to Judaism (there are midrashic traditions for all three possibilities), are the mothers of redemption. Their refusal of Pharaoh’s murderous order to kill the newborn males of the Israelites is the first crack in the wall of oppression. They don’t have to have a plan, they don’t have to figure out what will happen next. Their refusal — which is, of course, a great affirmation — makes possible the next act of resistance, and the next.

It is the women who are the early leaders of this movement. From the midwives, the initiative moves to Yocheved and Miriam, and then to the daughter of Pharaoh. Only after the women have prepared the way do the men take over. This is one twist on the way history is usually narrated. By emphasizing the activism of women here, does the Torah, in a sense, “queer” the telling of history?


Harvey and Tevye

In last year’s Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the dairyman, the iconic great- grandfather of 80% of American Jews, was played by Harvey Fierstein, an openly gay man. Tevye’s wife, Golde, was played by Rosie O’Donnell, an out lesbian. Fierstein had been most recently known to audiences of Hairspray as Edna Turnblad, in full and flamboyant drag. In Fiddler he donned a different disguise (Blake Eskin suggested, on the  Nextbook website, that “Fiddler is … a kind of Jewish drag”), that of a poor but pious shtetl businessman, married with five daughters. You will recall that three of the five daughters get married during the course of the show. The two younger daughters leave with their parents for America. We don’t see what happens to them, but the Harvey/Rosie casting hints that at least one of Tevye’s daughters in America had a gay child, or grandchildren, who now find their way into mainstream American culture (and not only to Broadway).

Tevye talks to God a lot, and he believes that God listens. Moses also talks to God a lot, and believes that God listens. Last spring, the  C hicago Gay Men’s Chorus  mounted an ambitious send-up of The Ten Commandments, most notably featuring a fabulous character, Flaming Bush. The extended conversation between God and Moses begins with the Bush, and can be read as a kind of coming-out story. God talks to Moses a lot, and believes that Moses listens — or will.


God Comes Out

God is trying to reveal the divine self to Moses, but Moses resists. It is almost as if Moses thinks that this is all about him: “I’m not very good at talking,” Moses worries.after being commanded by God to speak to Pharaoh on behalf of the Israelites. “What will I say?.” he asks. “No one will believe me.” “Send someone else.” But God, who wants to be known more fully than before, insists. When Moses asks God’s name, the answer is “Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh/ this is who I am, in the fullest way I can express it. God seems to be saying “I want you to know me this way, because I can no longer keep myself hidden from you.” The name change, or expanded identity, will be summarized a couple of chapters later: “I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by my name YHVH” (Genesis 6:2-3). That four-letter name of God, the Tetragrammaton, is composed of letters that stand for vowels, all breath, unpronounceable.

Moses, former Prince of Egypt, is about to become the often unpopular leader of a bunch of slaves. He anticipates trouble — it would be easier, perhaps, to remain hidden. Who is he really? And who is God really? Both God and Moses seem to be struggling to clarify their identities, to reveal that in themselves which requires a partner, another who opens and listens and responds.

The Sefat Emet, the Gerer Rebbe Yehuda Leib Alter, makes an intriguing comment about Moses’ self-description as a “man of uncircumcised lips.” He says that this phrase means that Israel refused to listen to him: “The prophet prophesies by the power of those who listen.” This is a radical statement. The prophet is not simply one to whom God speaks; nor is the prophet one who simply speaks the word of God. The prophet hears in such a way that s/he is compelled to speak, and speaks in such a way that the message can take effect in the hearers. The prophet depends upon God, of course, but also upon a community being ready and all ears.

We are far removed from prophecy today (if not from those who claim to speak for God). But to the extent that we discover ourselves in all the complex ins and outs of Jewish history — from slavery in Egypt to the shtetlach (small towns) of the Russian empire’s Pale of Settlement … to the achievements and tribulations of a modern Jewish state … to the stories of immigration to America — to the extent we make them our own, we “circumcise” our ears so that we can hear the voices that speak in all those stories.

And among them, do not forget the stories of coming out: of Moses coming out as a Hebrew, and even the coming out of El Shaddai, who further reveals Godself to Moses as YHVH, the breath of the universe that breathes through us and all our stories.