Religious Life

Hats Off to MTM

“Hats Off to MTM”
1 Shevat 5777 • Vayera • Rosh Chodesh Shevat • January 28, 2017
Rabbi Alexander Davis

On my day first visiting Minneapolis when I flew out to interview here at Beth El, Rabbi Kahn gave me a short tour of the area. We saw Fishman’s and Byerlys and driving around Lake of the Isles, he pointed out the Mary Tyler Moore house. I have to be honest and say, I was more taken by the frozen lake. “Who would live here?” I thought to myself.
You have to understand, despite the gray hair, I am just a bit too young to really have appreciated the Mary Tyler Moore show. Now Tina Fey, who developed her character for “30 Rock” by watching episodes of Mary Tyler Moore, her I know.

Even though I didn’t grow up a big fan, I appreciate Moore’s influence. Moore was a trailblazer who helped define a new vision of womanhood at a time when the women’s movement was taking hold. As one critic wrote, Moore’s character in the show “expressed both the exuberance and the melancholy of the single, career woman who could plot her own course.” A feminist icon in a man’s world, Moore could be ambitious, vulnerable, sexy, expressive, independent and of course, funny.

A week following the massive women’s marches that took place around the country, and a few days after Mary Tyler Moore’s death, I wonder who will follow in her footsteps and how feminism will change over the next four years and beyond. I don’t know answers to these questions but I know they are important because when the position of women improves, everyone benefits. Whether the march will inspire a movement or be just a moment, time will tell. This morning, however, I’d like to invite us to explore an early example of women who pushed the boundaries of her day.

Admittedly, at first glance, we wouldn’t expect to discover a role model for women in this week’s parasha because women are largely absent. In the who’s who of the Torah’s genealogy, over 50 names are included; less than five are women and in some cases not their name, only their lineage is listed. There is a passing mention of Moshe’s mother and Aaron’s wife. Glaringly absent is Miriam. We read in the Torah, “Amram’s wife, Yocheved bore him Aaron and Moshe. V’teiled lo et Ahron v’et Moshe”(6:20). What about Miriam their sister?! Where is she?

Various answers have been given. Ellen Frankel in her Book of Miriam explains that the three siblings rarely appear together. When Moshe is born, the Torah speaks of Moshe and Miriam, not Aaron. When Miriam appears at the crossing of the sea, she is identified as Aaron’s sister with no mention of Moshe. Perhaps, Frankel concludes, this reveals tension within the family, not surprising among three powerful leaders.

This explanation offers an interesting insight into the dynamics of the first family. But I am fascinated by Aviva Zornberg’s interpretation in her study on Exodus, The Particulars of Rapture. Zornberg writes, in the story, “women remain a latent presence in their very absence. They represent the hidden sphere which must remain hidden if it is to do its work with full power.” That is to say, women are intentionally left in the shadows. Like the moon that tonight is just beginning to shine and which is associated with the feminine, the light of women is partially hidden and only revealed incrementally. This position does not diminish the power of women. Just the opposite, Zornberg argues; they need to be hidden and work behind the scenes, to fully realize their influence.

So just where are the women of the Torah lurking? We might be tempted to think that women are included and subsumed in this general term “b’nai yisrael.” But Zornberg suggests otherwise. She describes an alternative Torah in which women have their own, independent storyline and powerful identity. This story exists on the margins of the Torah text and is only revealed in rabbinic interpretation known as midrash.

For Zornberg, it is davka when women are hidden that they are powerful. But I wonder. I wonder at what cost. Since this is not the story we read publically week after week, how does marginalizing the presence of women in the Torah and in Jewish tradition stifle their voice and diminish their influence.

Zornberg’s interpretation reminds me of what Ruth Bader Ginsberg once said, “The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage.” It may seem like women plotting in the night but it might just be that they are left in the dark.

And so we are reminded that there is still much work ahead for feminists, which means all of us. Mary Tyler Moore had America facing issues such as equal pay, birth control, and sexual independence in the ’70s. Sadly, in some ways those are still issues which must be addressed. We could add family leave, human trafficking and yes, sitting in the oval office. And there are on-going questions for our Jewish community as well.

Jamie Halper is a first year college student. Many of you know her. A staunch egalitarian Conservative Jew, she was shaped by this Beth El community and is rightly proud of it. At the end of December, Jamie caused a bit of an on-line uproar in a blog when she asked why the new, international USY board has no women. Jamie was not challenging the specific results of the election rather drawing attention to a consistent pattern of women being underrepresented in leadership positions in USY. Jamie wrote: “USY needs to develop programs to foster strong female leadership in the organization.” For, “Without strong female role models and the diversity of perspective that individuals of all genders can bring, USY will continue to fail to reach the broadest audience possible and expand its impact on the young Conservative Jewish community.”

Jamie’s fight for women’s rights, for women to wear tefillin and for the imahot (matriarchs) to be included in the Amidah is part and parcel of battle for equal pay, family leave, and reproductive rights. It is about moving women from the margins to the center, from being overlooked to being counted, from being in the shadow to proudly shining forth. And it begins with powerful role models.

We don’t have to wait until Shabbat Shira or Women’s League Shabbat to talk about Miriam and women in Jewish life, so let’s return to the Torah. We don’t have to apologize for whose left out of the Torah. We understand the cultural context in which it was written. We do, however, have to notice and to give voice to those not included.
In Miriam’s case, the truth is, we don’t have to read too far beyond the boarder of the text to see that the midrash was right: “chogra v’oz matneha;” an Eshet Chayil, she “girds herself in strength.” Penina Adelman in a book called, “Conversations with Biblical Woman” explains, “Miriam’s is a spiritual, emotional and psychological strength. It allows her to challenge the powers of her time and to celebrate in the midst of uncertainty.” True, she “never reaches the Promised Land. But she brings song and dance with her on the journey through the wilderness and she bids us to dance the same.”

Let us do the same. Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come and acknowledge how far we still have to go. Let us continue the journey and the dance of Miriam, of Mary and of Jamie so that our daughters and our sons will not have to the look to the margins to find female role models, so that they will not have to fight the same fight or march the same march. Rather, they will see women, revealing the full light of their presence, their wisdom and their power, a light that “turns the world on with their smile, that takes a nothing day, and suddenly makes it all seem worthwhile.”

Shabbat Shalom