Prior to Shabbat, we celebrated the last day of Pesach. The seventh day Torah reading is Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, the victory melody the Israelite’s chanted when the sea closed over their Egyptian pursuers on the escape from Egypt. This is a war victory song – singing of God’s triumph over the Egyptian army – part of which you know from the “Mi Chamocha” found in the text which has made its way into our morning and evening prayer services.
Following the Shirah, the song, is another very short victory song. Just two lines. The Song of Miriam:
“Sing to the Eternal, for God has triumphed gloriously
Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.” (Ex 15:21)
While you may not be familiar with those exact words, through Debbie Friedman’s melody which we sang this evening you are familiar with the context.
“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them…” (Ex 15:20-21)
Debbie Friedman’s “Miriam Song” written in 1988 and its popularity, brought to the fore the story of Miriam and how it was written out of so much of our Jewish history. It became popular in the 1980’s just as Chabad women were popularizing Miriam’s Tambourines and with the advent of the Women’s Seder which included the Miriam’s Cup.
As I wrote in the Women’s Seder Haggadah we produced last year, compared to Moses and Aaron, we know little of Miriam’s story:
“Our Torah is sparse. All we really know is that Miriam watches baby Moses hidden in the bulrushes and suggests to the Egyptian princess, that Yocheved should nurse the baby. All we really know is that her victory song at the sea is cut short to two lines. All we really know is that her speaking out against her brother marrying the Cushite woman is punished with leprosy while her brother Aaron goes unchastised. All we really know is that she is mourned by the Israelites when she dies. Nevertheless, the Torah’s dismissal of what was her immense role as a prophetess lives on: “… I brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam.” (Micah 6:4)”
What happened to Miriam, herself, is a leitmotif for how our culture has traditionally treated women. It is too easy to think that because this congregation has a woman rabbi and a female cantor on staff, or because women have run for president and vice president of this country, or because there are some female CEO’s out there, that the time of women and men as equals has arrived. It is too simple to believe because we now read female authors and poets, that some of our most popular musicians and composers are female, or that there are some households where men share in the domestic duties, that there is no patriarchy.
April 10th is Equal Pay Day. This date symbolizes how far into the working year women need to work for women’s earnings, on average, to catch up to what a man earns for the same job . In other words, if women could add to their working week, a work period from January 1 through April 10, they would then be earning the same amount as men. On average, women are paid 80% less of what men are paid for similar work. And while the gap is narrowing, at the current rate, women will not receive equal pay until 2059.
Recently our own Reform movement led by a collaboration of the movements professional organizations for rabbis, cantors, educators, early childhood educators and administrators, documented the wage gaps between men and women throughout our own congregations. For a movement that is dedicated to egalitarianism and justice, it is shocking to see that Reform Jewish women professionals are routinely paid less than their male counterparts. So recently our Movement formed an association called the Reform Pay Equity Initiative, to address the need to narrow the wage gap, provide the Reform Movements female employees with resources and training, and to educate the employers, professional and lay leaders of our synagogues and organizations about the wage inequity, Jewish ethical employment and the interventions that can be used to counter this injustice.
Equality and equity is not just about pay. Miriam’s prophetic words are rarely recorded into the annals of Torah or traditional rabbinic texts. Studies show that women’s words are often consciously or unconsciously not “heard” or are “dismissed”.
It is a well-known and documented phenomenon in the business world which has analyzed women’s experiences in the work place, that often when a woman suggests an idea, it is not given validity by management (whether they be male or female), until the same idea is expressed by a man. Likewise, it is not uncommon for men to feel the need to mansplain to women their own experiences, or to feel the need to have the “last word” in a conversation, or to “decide” to usurp a role that is not their job description, because they perceive that a male will be more effective. Speak to most women who have been in the workplace with men and they can share such personal experiences.
Feminist commentators have wondered, whether the scant mention and the lack of words of the prophetess Miriam in our text is because of the perception that a woman would not make as an effective prophetic role model. There seems to be a double behavioral standard for women and men in society. Women wrestle with these unconscious biases as they navigate their lives. A woman standing her ground is seen as stubborn, while a male standing his ground is viewed as having integrity. Women showing emotion are understood as weak, while a man showing emotion is seen as sensitive. A woman who brings who changes her child’s diaper is doing her job, while a man doing the same task is lauded as a good father.
“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them…”
The inequity that today is still pervasive in our society has reached a tipping point… and we are beginning to see women using their voices and their voices to speak out against this injustice. The Women’s Marches and the #MeToo movement are indicative of female led chants for a more equal world.
In her December Op Ed in The Forward, Rabbi Jody Gerson added her voice by speaking out about her recent experience at the URJ Biennial.
“All attendees wore name tags which gave our congregations and locations. For Rabbis, these tags included our title, but not our positions (i.e.-Assistant Rabbi, Associate Rabbi, Senior Rabbi, Rabbi Educator or Solo Rabbi).
My tag read: Rabbi Jordie Gerson, Greenwich Reform Synagogue, Greenwich, CT. It seemed simple enough, but the conversations that would follow were jarring. Over and over again, my nametag prompted the same discussion.
“So, where are you?” Someone would ask. “I’m the Rabbi in Greenwich, Connecticut,” I’d say, gesturing to my tag. And then, almost immediately, they would ask, “So who’s your senior [Rabbi]?” or “You’re the Associate?” or, in its most frustrating iteration, “So — you must be [your older, male predecessor’s] assistant?”
I am none of these things. I am The Rabbi. The Only Rabbi. The Solo and the Senior Rabbi; The Rabbi, Ha Rabbah, the Big (Kosher) Cheese. But, apparently, I don’t look like it.[i]
There is so much more that we could and should be doing to ensure that the time will come when men and women are regarded as equal in talent, in voice and in leadership in our society. Even amongst ourselves here in the Reform Movement, here in Baltimore, and here at Har Sinai Congregation.
My colleague Rabbi Kari Hoffmeister Tuling made some concrete suggestions about where we might consciously start in that process in synagogue life.
She suggests that we refer to every colleague as Rabbi last name or Cantor last name – no matter how cute/young/approachable/bubbly or fun they are. That we pull out our adult education brochure, and count, how many male experts versus female experts we have. If women are not hitting the 50% mark, notify those in charge of choosing that from now on your expectation is 50%, starting with the 2018/2019 year. Make sure every hiring committee and every personnel evaluation committee has specific training in spotting gender bias. Women routinely get evaluated more negatively than men. Educate ourselves others regarding the latest in feminist thought in your various forms of communication. Never have all-male panels or celebrations. And always consider a woman or women are on the list to be considered for a task in leadership. Point out female credit when credit is due: if a man repeats an idea or point originated from a woman, nicely point out who the true originator of that idea is so that the woman’s voice is heard as her voice. Rabbi Leana Morritt adds to this list: To constructively call out comments that marginalize, objectify or minimize women. They may seem innocuous, unconscious or even well meaning, but shining a light to this dynamic is the only way to begin really tackling this pernicious problem.
Timbrels and chants. Let us examine our ways of operating, seek a new melody of which will create a world that is equal. Where women are acknowledged for the work they do, the ideas they bring and are treated as talented partners in the world we are making. In doing so we will: “Sing a son to the One whom we’ve exulted.” And like Miriam and the women by the shores of the sea, our celebration of equality between genders will be worth dancing the whole night long.”