Tradition Today: Miriam’s Day

Although Judaism has traditionally been a largely patriarchal religion, from the beginning women have played an important, even crucial, role.

April 8, 2015 12:03
18th-century oil painting

18th-century oil painting of ‘The Song of Miriam.’. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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I like to think about the last day of Passover as Miriam’s Day. On the first day of Passover we commemorate and celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, an event led by Moses, who was charged by God with the task, as we read, “I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt” (Exodus 3:10).

But at the end we read about the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, which is truly the climax of the exodus, and that story concludes with “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all of the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, horse and rider He has hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15:20- 21). Incidentally, I assume – and rightly I believe – that the men listened to this song and watched the dancing as well. It seems that they had never heard the idea that “a woman’s voice is indecent” (erva). Rather they may have agreed with the Song of Songs that “your (feminine) voice is sweet” (arev) (2:14).

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The Torah pays great homage to Miriam. She may be “Aaron’s sister,” but she is also granted the title “the prophetess.” Moses was the supreme prophet, but Aaron is not identified as a prophet. It was only proper that, at this moment of supreme celebration and joy, it is Miriam who concludes the festivities. After all, she played a pivotal role in the exodus, watching by the Nile to see what would happen to her baby brother who was put adrift in a basket. She witnessed his rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter and saw to it that Moses was given into the hands of his true mother.

Without that, he would never have known he was a Hebrew.

The prophet Micah presents her as one of the three sent by God to redeem Israel from the house of bondage, “Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (Micah 6:4).

It is true that we know very little about Miriam’s activities other than these two incidents – one at the Nile and one at the Sea. The only other story told about her is a negative one, when she and Aaron spread gossip about Moses’s wife and she was punished with a skin disease (Numbers 12). Even there the Torah tells us that “...the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted” (Numbers 12:15), a sign of their care and concern for her.

Later tradition added luster to her story. When she dies – which the Torah mentions specifically, giving the month and place, an honor accorded very few women – it also mentions that “the community was without water” (Numbers 20:2). The rabbis taught that there had been a well of water – Miriam’s well – which because of her merit accompanied them in the wilderness and ceased when she died. Thus, for the third time Miriam is connected to water, the very source of life.

Rabbinic tradition went even further and gave a reason for her being called a prophetess.

It was Miriam who persuaded her parents not to refrain from having another child when Pharaoh issued his decree to kill all the male infants, and it was Miriam who prophesied that this child would be the savior of the people of Israel who would lead them to freedom. When the child was put into the basket on the Nile, Amram, the father, said to Miriam, “What has become of her prophecy now?!” but she still had faith and made it her business to watch and see what would happen, and indeed played a pivotal role in the child’s future.

Although Judaism has traditionally been a largely patriarchal religion, from the beginning women have played an important, even crucial, role. The sages themselves stated that it was because of righteous women that Israel was redeemed from Egypt, and it is not accidental that so many women feature in the Exodus story – Israelite and non-Israelite. In addition to Miriam there are the midwives who refused to carry out Pharaoh’s murderous plan, Jochebed who bore and hid her child, Pharaoh’s daughter who knowingly saved an Israelite boy, Zipporah, Moses’s wife who acted bravely when her husband’s life was in danger, and all the Israelite women who carried on the tradition.

In later times, as well, there were other women leaders of the people: Deborah, a judge and prophetess, Jael who slew the enemy Sisera, Huldah, a prophetess who lived in the time of Jeremiah and was consulted by kings, to say nothing of Ruth and Esther. Nor were the Matriarchs unimportant. Certainly Sarah was a strong women and an important partner for Abraham, as were Rebekah and Rachel and Leah for their husbands.

Women were not part of the ritual in the Temple – there are no female priests – most likely because of the desire to make a complete break between the religion of Israel and pagan religions that posited male and female gods and included fertility rites. But having women as prophets indicated that women were not totally excluded from the realm of religious leadership.

Unfortunately these leadership roles disappeared in post-biblical times. Now women have once again begun to play such a role. In my Masorti Movement, women have functioned as rabbis for several decades and have made an enormous contribution to Judaism as teachers, halachic experts, scholars and religious leaders.

We have been spiritually enriched by their work. The same is true of the Reform Movement and even within more modern and open Orthodoxy, where women are playing increasingly important parts in religious leadership, regardless of what title they are given.

There are even occasional stirrings in that direction within the haredi community. The voice of women can no longer be silenced.

To return to the Song at the Sea, when the verse says that “Moses and B’nei Yisrael sang this song…” (Exodus 15:1) the usual translation is “the Israelites” meaning all the people of Israel, male and female. There is no question that that is the common meaning of the phrase, but in this case I believe that it means what the Hebrew says literally – the sons (i.e. males) of Israel.

If Miriam and the women sang then, what is the point of having her lead the women in chanting the song afterwards (Exodus 15:20-21)? The point being made here is that it was not enough for Moses and the men to sing. The celebration was not complete without the added voice of the women. As a matter of fact they did even more than the men because they added musical instruments and the element of dance.

What was true then is true today. Our celebration, our religious life, is not complete without the addition of the voice of women and what they can contribute to Jewish worship and Jewish life. To the voice of Moses must be added the voice of Miriam.

The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).

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