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The Midwives of the Exodus: Yours, Mine or Ours?

There are so many nameless women in the Bible, and yet the two midwives in the Exodus story who stood up to Pharaoh and saved the Israelite babies get two names each in ancient rabbinic literature. According to one account, the midwives’ names, Shiphrah and Puah (Ex. 1:15), were code names for Miriam and Jochebed, Moses’ sister and mother. Shiphrah was Jochebed, the story goes, because Shiphrah means “cared for” and Jochebed used her skills to care for newborns. Puah equals Miriam because Puah means “cry out” – and Miriam would “cry out through the Holy Spirit, ‘my mother will bear a son who will be the savior of Israel’” (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 11b).

Pharaoh and the Midwives, The Golden Haggadah, 14th century. Wikimedia commons.

The numerous permutations of the midwife story in rabbinic literature throughout the ages, extending even to a talmudic debate (Sotah 11b) over the birthing room equipment, shows how intrigued the sages were with these two women. They intrigue me too. But what I want to know is where they got the courage to resist the will of Egypt’s all-powerful sovereign, at the risk of their own lives.

Who were they?

Perhaps because of Shiphrah and Puah’s association with Miriam and Jochebed, we usually imagine the midwives as Hebrew women. In Hebrew, the Bible calls them hameyaldot ha’ivriot, which is usually taken to mean “the Hebrew midwives.” But this term might also mean “the midwives of the Hebrew women.” So for all we know, they might have been Egyptian, or perhaps from from Nubia (partly today’s Sudan), which was ruled by Egypt in various periods.  To the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, it was obvious that the midwives were Egyptian (Antiquities 2, 205).

So, the sages conceded, the midwives may not have been Hebrews. Still, they couldn’t resist making them honorary members of the tribe – according to some medieval sources they were “righteous converts” to Judaism.

Resistance personified

But I like to think of them as full-fledged Egyptian women; “righteous gentiles,” we’d call them today, saving lives oblivious to ethnicity, endangering their own to do so. And I learned that it was ethnic prejudice and hatred for the Hebrews, the “other” in this saga, that defeated Pharaoh’s own plot against them. When he finds out that the Hebrew babies’ lives were spared, blinded by his own ignorance, he falls for the midwives’ unlikely argument – a ruse – that Hebrew women give birth faster than Egyptian women  – so fast that they can’t get there in time to take their babies away.

I like to imagine those brave biblical midwives carrying out their task unconcerned with the identity of their patients – like medical professionals today, sworn to equally treat every human being who comes to them in need, “whether common or distinguished, friend or foe,” as the oath of the Israeli army medical corps states.

A Palestinian baby injured in a car accident last year was breastfed by a Jewish ER nurse after he refused to take a bottle. The baby’s mother had sustained a serious head injury and his  aunts asked the nurse, Ula Ostrowski-Zak, to help find someone to nurse him. Ula  volunteered. “I breastfed him like I do my own son….I’m here all night. It seemed so straightforward,” she told Ynet news at the time. (Photo: Hadassah Hospital Spokesperson)

These mysterious biblical women, perhaps of another nation, delivered the children of Israel – literally – in their hour of need. There’s no time like the festival of freedom, especially this year, to remember the message Jochebed’s son and Miriam’s brother brought down from the mountain:  “When a foreigner, a stranger, resides among you in your land, do not do them wrong” (Lev. 19:33).

When opportunities come our way, whether extraordinary or mundane, to be there for the other – and our lives are full of them these days wherever we live – here’s a thought: Without the midwives of the Hebrew women, we would never have gotten to the Red Sea shore, much less have crossed it.

 

Leafy-Vine-Stitched-8-Inch.

Want to know more?

Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b, midwives, birth stool: http://www.come-and-hear.com/sotah/sotah_11.html#PARTb 

A. Brenner. A Feminist Companion to Exodus and Deuteronomy, pp. 23–24.

C. Meyers (ed.). Women in Scripture, pp. 127, 156, 185.

M. Feinberg Vamosh. Women at the Time of the Bible, pp. 49–51.

Women of The Scroll and Women of the Bible – Advanced Level Survival Skills Instructors

The Scroll – An Unforgettable Holiday Read

Alright, Danessa, I’ll tell them! That’s my late mother, chief cheerleader in all my endeavors, whose passing we commemorate on Passover eve. Now that I’m working hard to help get the word out about my first historical novel, The Scroll, there she is, persistent as ever. You’ve got a website! So use it! So alright, already, mom, I’ll tell them:

The Scroll is a multi-generational historical novel about the survivors of the famous last stand of the Jewish rebels of Masada against the Roman army. Its story line is drawn from a real archaeological find – the divorce document of a real-life woman named Miriam, issued at Masada. The story begins on Masada’s final, horrific day. Over the three generations that follow, its characters must choose between nation and family, and finally, between life and death. Will they learn the lesson of Masada’s downfall, or will enemies – within and without – rob it from them? Though it deals with events that took place two millennia ago, The Scroll will help you make sense of the complexities of today’s Israel and the choices its leaders make. It is chock full of meticulously researched, colorful details of ancient daily life, religion, politics and society, which will stir the imagination of readers fascinated by those times.

This Easter and Passover I hope you’ll make The Scroll your holiday reading. And consider purchasing The Scroll  as a gift for participants on your upcoming Israel tour or your book club. Please contact me for discounts on bulk orders. Order here, through Koren Books, or Amazon.

Happy Holidays!

 

 

A Purim Tale for 2018: Bless the Other

Ancient Jewish sages taught that Mordecai the Jew saved gentiles, too. This is a tale for our times.

There’s no holiday like Purim to combine a story of the survival of the Jewish people against the enemy all around, women’s empowerment, an odious villain whose name we drown out with noisemakers, and kings, queens and courtiers in a glittering palace setting. It’s a holiday just begging to be celebrated with revelry and costume (and food of course). But this, for a change, I hope, is not about that. This is about an issue with us now that no amount of noise-making can drown out.

An article by Talmudic scholar Yakov Z. Meyer for Purim 2010 that appeared in Haaretz opened my eyes to this issue: Early in the Book of Esther, which we read last night in Jerusalem synagogues, we’ve got what seems to be a literary device – how to place Esther squarely in the sights of King Ahasuerus as more than the beautiful virgin after whom he lusted, to replace Vashti, who refused to be a victim of his drunken bidding. Esther’s cousin Mordecai, lurking around the gates of the palace in which he has insinuated his comely cousin, hears two of King Ahasuerus’ guards plotting to kill the sovereign. Mordecai gets word to Esther, who reports it to the king, who has the two traitors executed.

Mordecai and Esther (Aert de Gelder, 1645-1727)

Meyer introduces us to a midrash that zeros in precisely on this device:  Since Mordecai is a Jew and Ahasuerus is not, the midrash asks, why should Mordechai have cared about the king? Meyer tells us that Rabbi Judah answers by enumerating biblical instances where Israelites reached out to aid non-Israelites. Rabbi Judah recalls that Jacob, interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams. Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams. The midrash then goes on to say: “If they (the gentiles) are in trouble, they consult with us and we reveal the answer to them” (Bereshit Rabba 39:12)

According to Meyer, Rabbi Judah cites Psalm 119:100: “I am wiser than my elders” (I quote the translation of this verse, in Hebrew: mizkenim etbonan, rather than the translation that appeared in Meyer’s article, but either translation makes the point.) We are to understand that Rabbi Judah is saying in Mordecai’s name: “I can do even better than those who came before me who helped non-Jews;  I’ll save this non-Jew’s life.” Rabbi Judah’s interlocutor, Rabbi Nehemiah, quotes from Genesis 12:3, where God tells Abraham: “In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Thus, Meyer says, God defines not only the relationship between Abraham and his descendants, but between us and the other, which to me means those not of our culture, faith or nation. That relationship is one in which we endeavor to bless the other by our actions.

According to Meyer, the midrash asks a question, why should Mordecai help non-Jews, that might mislead us into thinking this passage is ethnocentric, to say the least, only to give the answer that Jews are obliged to be anything but.

This brings me to a Talmudic saying that seems on the surface to justify helping our own people before we help others. It is often quoted these days by those (including, recently, our interior minister, who is a rabbi) blithely trying to justify withholding or withdrawing assistance to the African asylum seekers in Israel who now face deportation to countries where their lives are in danger . That quote is: “The poor of your own city come first.”

People don’t know that this isn’t the whole statement, and believe it means the ancient sages who interpreted the Bible are giving them license to delay or avoid caring for a person of a different race, religion, or nationality.  Such a dictum would certainly mean Mordecai should not have warned a non-Jewish king of his impending assassination.

But the verse has more: In the Talmud (Baba Metzia 31b) this dictum appears a discussion that seems to revolve around one word: a Hebrew grammatical construction translated as “surely.” The sages list a number of verses where the word “surely” appears as a kind of emphasis. One of these is Deuteronomy 15:11: “Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto thy poor and needy brother, in thy land.” In the same vein as the sages’ question about Mordecai’s “strange” obligation to a gentile king, one of the sages responds regarding this verse:  “I know this only of the poor of thine own city. Whence do I know it is of the poor of another city? From the expression: Thou shalt surely open. That is, in all cases.”

Only when we take the verse in its entirety can we recognize and appreciate the ancient Jewish commitment to care for all in need. Anything else, anything less, is a masquerade fit only for a drunken Purim party.

Of King David’s Women: Tamar, Symbol of Survival

The date palm speaks of justice and survival in the biblical world of #MeToo

On this upcoming Tu B’Shvat, the New Year of Trees, my thoughts go to King David’s daughter Tamar, whose name means date palm. Tamar was raped, then scorned and cast out by her half-brother (2 Sam. 13). Ironically, the tree for which Tamar was named is a biblical symbol of survival, of life itself, thriving as it does in oases, surrounded by desolation, seen from a distance by parched and desperate travelers. In its bounty it is compared to the rewards of righteousness (Psalm 92:13) and to justice (Judges 4:5).

“The Rape of Tamar,” Alexander Cabanel, 19th century. Wikimedia Commons.

Its scientific name is Phoenix dactifera. In this name, we can find a symbol of hope as well. Some say the legendary phoenix – the bird who ended its life in a blaze and whose successor rose from the ashes – might have gotten its name from a characteristic the bird shares with the date palm: After a fire, it is reborn from shoots that spring from its innermost surviving parts.

The date palm as a “giving tree” became a symbol in early Christianity and in Islam as well. An infancy narrative attributed to St. Jerome depicts Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the desert. When Mary says she is hungry and thirsty, the baby Jesus commands a date palm to bend down, give his mother its fruit and reveal a spring of pure water. The Quran also tells this story.

Among the magnificent mosaics discovered in 1992 at the Kathisma, The Church of Mary’s Seat, on the Jerusalem–Bethlehem road, is this date palm that immortalizes the legend of  Mary’s “giving tree.” Courtesy of  Dr. Rina Avner.

The courtroom of the biblical heroine Deborah was under a date palm, and so the tamar became a symbol of justice. But for David’s daughter, there would be no true justice in the biblical telling. Her brother Absalom meticulously planned and executed his revenge on her attacker, but even this he did not share with his sister. His advice to her sounds all too familiar: Just put it behind you. Don’t tell anyone. As for David, when he heard what happened, he “became angry.” No more. Neither man gave Tamar what we now know victims need most after such a trauma – recognition, validation, comfort.

Tamar as a Flower

Tamar has entered the botanical world not only in the name of a tree, but, oddly, together with her attacker, as a flower: the pansy. In Hebrew it’s known as Amnon v’Tamar, by way of a Russian legend about a brother and sister, Ivan and Maria (which is the name for pansy in Russian), separated in childhood, who are reunited as adults and fall in love. God takes pity on them and turns them into a two-tone blossom, each symbolizing a different color, so they can stay together forever. These star-crossed Russian lovers were transformed into a prince and princess of Israel, abuser and victim, by none other than the Russian-born Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, who translated the legend into Hebrew and sought a biblical name and theme for his protagonists.

Pansy. The gold is Tchernichovksy’s Tamar (Maria in the Russian legend); the purple, Amnon (Ivan). Wikimedia Commons.

Absalom killed Amnon, and fled from his father. And David mourned. Not because one son had killed another, but because David longed for Absalom. Did David also long to have acted differently? Did he regret not having spoken up for his daughter and punished Amnon with his own hand (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:3)?

Where is David’s mourning for Tamar? Where, indeed, is she? Must her only trace after the crime against her be in her name – given by Absalom to his daughter, perhaps out of guilt over abandoning his sister?

Hope in the Future

This is where I want to go in my next historical novel. According to an ancient legend I’ll be weaving into it, Tamar was once again threatened, and once again, it happened in the place where she should have felt safest, among her own family (this time, on her mother’s side). But this story ends in hope. This Tamar, who once placed ashes on her head in mourning, like the women in my first historical novel, The Scroll, will rise from the ashes.

Big Tamar with little Tamar and her mother Maya, cutting cookies, shaping the future, 2015.

As did Tamar, my mother-in-law and who passed away just three months ago at age 87. Tamar was her adopted name. When she was about 16, after the liberation of the Budapest ghetto where she survived the Holocaust, Vera, as she was known then, cared for orphaned Jewish children getting ready to go to Palestine. The group’s leaders gave everyone a Hebrew name, to prepare for the future they hoped for in the land of their ancestors. “You’ll be Tamar,” they told her, because you’re tall and lovely like a tamar“– a date palm (Song of Songs 7:7–8).

Like Tamar, the daughter of David, my mother-in-law was left unprotected in a world of unimaginable cruelty, and she rose from the ashes to reestablish her family – our family. Let’s work so that her great-granddaughter, also named Tamar, the descendent of strong, heroic women on both sides, will know a better world.

  Leafy-Vine-Stitched-8-Inch

Further reading

Pseudo-Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 20. http://gnosis.org/library/psudomat.htm.

Philologos. “Named for a Rapist.” The Forward, Feb. 24, 2010. https://forward.com/culture/126322/named-for-a-rapist/

Feinberg-Vamosh, M. Food at the Time of the Bible. Herzliya, Israel, n.d. P. 40.

Lowin, S.L. Arabic and Hebrew Love Poems in Al-Andalus. New York, 2013.

 

 

Of King David’s Women Part I: Abigail of Blessed Memory

In the Scriptural game of thrones, Abigail plays a key role in a surprise-filled plot. A strong woman of the Bible take the lead – again.

Why start my series on the women in King David’s life with Abigail? She’s not his first wife (Michal) nor is she the most famous (Bathsheba). Neither is she the daughter that his son, and David himself, so wronged (Tamar). But Abigail – her wisdom so powerfully revealed in so few slender verses – reaches out across the millennia in a way that has put her at the top of my list of strong women of the Bible.

Abigail, by Riki Rothenberg. Abigail appears in the center, and red-headed David and his men at left. David’s future crown is tied, literally to Abigail. Nabal is carousing at top right. Courtesy of Riki Rothenberg.

As usual, although Abigail is the heroine, it’s Nabal, a man of means – and a mean man – about whom we get all the details. And, seeking to understand more about Abigail from elsewhere in Scripture, we find that according to scholars, Abigail was no more than a means to an end for David. Nabal, we’re told in 1 Sam 25:3, was a Calebite chieftain. According to 1 Chron. 2:50–51, David must have been a descendant of the Calebites, through a man named Bethlehem (David’s ancestral city). By marrying Abigail, some say David attained vital Calebite support for his kingship.  Indeed, David was eventually crowned in Calebite territory, in Hebron, where he spent seven years.

But it’s in the story itself that Abigail reveals herself to us, with Haiku-like brevity and precision. Here we find a decisive, strong, quick-acting woman of faith, who rewrote not only her own history and future, but the history through which we descendants of the Judahites know ourselves. In that sense, Abigail was an inspiration for my first-generation heroine in my first historical novel, The Scroll, among the few survivors of Masada, who by her wisdom and sheer willpower, changed a bleak future overshadowed by men’s desires.

The story in 1 Samuel 25 opens with David roaming the desert with band of 600 (!) outlaws. David had sent men to Nabal with a message: To paraphrase 1 Sam. 25:6–7:  “We’ve been watching your shepherds now for some time, busy with the shearing of your prodigous flock, and, just so you know, they’re feeling fine.” Then came some over-the-top wishes for continued good health and wealth, and a request for supplies. Considering David had left behind 200 of his men to guard his own supplies, it seems hunger was not his motive, but rather a Corleone-style demand for protection money if ever there was one. Nabal mockingly refuses, and it’s all downhill from there. Swords girded, off they go.

Abigail comes on the scene, having heard of the goings-on from a servant after the men involved had already sparked conflict. The quantity of supplies she presented to David might have fed Nabal’s household for no more than two days. That is, except for the extravagant “five dressed sheep,” which Abigail undoubtedly included to make a point – she was in charge, not Nabal. Abigail bows when she meets David, as her culture required. But using Nabal’s unfortunate nickname (“base fellow”) against him, she makes it clear that David will find dealing with her much different than with Nabal.

Pretending that violence is the last thing on David’s mind, Abigail blesses the outlaw and future king with long life, the monarchy, victory over his enemies and a dynasty to boot.  David, quite bowled over, sends her home with a promise that all will be well. Abigail then reports back to a drunken, carousing Nabal, who keels over when he hears what his wife had done without his knowledge and against his wishes.

David “proposes” to Abigail (roses and champagne are not mentioned, but “taking” is…twice. That’s ancient culture for you; lucky we’re done with that…). Abigail agrees, describing herself as a lowly handmaid and foot-washer, in direct contradiction to what we have already come to appreciate about her.

No need to dwell on David’s numerous flaws here. One of his most egregious sins had to do with another married woman who he brought into his life, with disastrous results. But David himself recognizes the role Abigail played in restraining his worst inclinations. That even God’s chosen king needed someone to keep him in line should comfort us  ordinary mortals at this time of year, when New Year’s resolutions are already weakening for some.

Abigail tells David that his life “will be bound securely in the bundle of life by the Lord your God.”  Our sages, who counted Abigail among the seven prophetesses of Israel (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Megillah 14a), found that image so touching that they quoted it to describe what happens to the souls of the righteous after death (tractate Shabbat 152b). These poignant words are recited at Jewish funerals to this day. And thus, Abigail is still with us.

Thank you, Abigail, of blessed memory, for your deeds, and the hope of eternity bound up in your words.

 

Further reading

C. Meyers (ed.), Women in Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI, 2000), pp. 43–44.

J.D. Levenson and B. Halpern, “The Political Import of David’s Marriages,” Journal of Biblical Literature 99:4 (Dec.1980), pp. 507–518.

T. Kadari, “Abigail: Midrash and Aggadah.” https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/abigail-midrash-and-aggadah.

M. Feinberg Vamosh, The Scroll.

M, Feinberg Vamosh, Women at the Time of the Bible.

 

 

My thoughts on Abigail are partly based ideas exchanged with the artist Riki Rothenberg, whose inspiring work adorns this blogpost. My thanks to Riki for allowing me to present them and her art to you.

“Loving Divorce”: Born on the Battlefield

When might a man love a woman so much that he divorces her? And what does that have to do with David and Goliath? Click on the headline “Loving Divorce” below and find out! Thank you David Bivin and the Jerusalem Perspective for allowing me to reflect on a unique Jewish practice of wartime divorce, which gave me the plot of my first historical novel, The Scroll.

“Loving Divorce”: Born on the Battlefield

Interview About The Scroll on Hebrew Nation Radio

Click here to listen to my recent radio interview! Thanks to the hosts on the Hebrew Nation Radio morning show “The Remnant Road,” who gave me an opportunity to discuss my books, especially The Scroll. The audience at Hebrew Nation Radio wants to learn more about the Jewish roots of their faith, and so I was able to tell interviewers Mike Clayton, Al McCarn and Barry Philips about episodes in The Scroll where I brought Jews and early Judeo-Christians together. The interview was a golden opportunity to discuss all the subjects I love to write about, including the strong women of the Bible. But best of all, I was able not only to discuss the women survivors of Masada and the future I imagined for them and their descendants, but also the Hebrew roots of Christianity and the beginnings of Christianity,  My aim in bringing Jews and early Christians together in The Scroll,  as I told the interviewers, was to show how each community faced the harsh challenges of  its times.  To this day, we can and must face the enormous challenges of our times together, celebrating and building upon what unites us rather than what divides us.

Women of The Scroll and Women of the Bible – Advanced Level Survival Skills Instructors

Like the women of faith in the Bible, the heroines of my first historical novel, The Scroll, are strong women whose voices I want to make heard. When The Scroll begins, during the final days at the fortress of Masada, a woman surrounded by the enemy chooses life. She chooses life against all odds, like the strong women of the Bible. I introduced that woman to my readers as I imagined her – the last of the Masada’s survivors. I raised her in a Jerusalem torn asunder by the infighting that led her to that desolate plateau. But I brought her from that killing ground into a future where faintheartedness was not an option.

What’s in a name?

I didn’t make her up entirely. I based her character on a real woman who called out from across the millennia. Her name, and place of residence (Masada!) appears in an ancient divorce document, a real archaeological find, discovered in a cave in the Judean wilderness in the 1950s. Her name gave me pause for thought. It was Miriam – the same as mine. That could be awkward for an author. But it harked back to another strong woman of the Bible, Miriam, who praised God for deliverance in song and dance by an ancient sea.  And so I decided that this was no coincidence; it was going to help me understand how a modern Miriam would have faced the challenges of dark, troubled, ancient times.

Biblical Miriam dancing and playing the tamborine, by contemporary artist Rikki Rothenberg.

Biblical Miriam is just one of the female Bible characters I sought to bring alive in The Scroll. The spirits of other women of the Old Testament are reflected in  my plot, as readers discover whether, over three generations bookended by rebellion, my characters learned the lesson of Masada’s downfall or whether enemies – within and without – robbed it from them. Infused in the women of each generation in The Scroll are the warrior instincts of Deborah and Jael and the survivor instincts of Ruth, the steely determination of Sarah, Rebecca’s mastery of subterfuge, Hannah’s boundless faith, Rahab’s unwavering commitment, Esther’s love of her people. In such women, in The Scroll and in Scripture, I hope you’ll find lessons of endurance we all need now more than ever.