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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.
Everyone has heard of the famous riddle:
The doctor rushed out of the operating room and said: “I can’t operate on this boy – he’s my son!”
The doctor was not the boy’s father.
Who was the doctor?
The correct answer, of course, is that the doctor was the boy’s mother.
The riddle was a tricky one when I was a kid, but its cleverness depends entirely on the subliminal, cultural presumption that doctors are men.
I’m not sure that much of this bias remains today, or that the riddle holds any further witty appeal. As the Wall Street Journal reported in October, 2015 (citing an analysis performed by the Association of American Medical Colleges), “nearly a third of all practicing physicians are women, and they account for more than 60% of pediatricians and more than 51% of obstetricians/gynecologists. More women are turning to careers in medicine—46% of all physicians in training and almost half of all medical students are women. . . Over 60% of trainees in dermatology are women, and the number of female general surgery trainees is now 38%.”
Moreover, our collective cultural experience has been influenced by such popular TV shows as Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, in which women are well-represented in the top echelons of medical practice, or shows like Masters of Sex, in which the medical field’s anti-women bias is appropriately framed as a relic of a primitive past.
Women have gradually been emerging from the male shadows.
Here is a recent example. Beruriyah was a woman of the Talmud. She was a renowned and brilliant Torah scholar, who stood her own in a male-dominated culture. She was also a mother, and the wife of the famous sage of the Tannaic period, Rabbi Meir. The few stories that we have of Beruriyah illustrate a strength of character which places her on a lofty pedestal even relative to her illustrious husband.
An Israeli newspaper recently reported regarding the success of a campaign to change the description of the Jerusalem street named “Beruriyah St.” As many such street signs include a brief description of the individual named, this street sign had previously described Beruriyah simply as Rabbi Meir’s wife, with no mention of her own spiritual and intellectual achievements. Now, due to the efforts of Jerusalem resident Hadas Levmore, the sign first describes Beruriyah as “the righteous, one exalted in Torah, the wife of the Tanna, Rabbi Meir Ba’al HaNes.” A similar campaign was successful in changing the description of Ruth Street to reflect Ruth’s independent stature as a Jewish heroine, and not merely the wife of Boaz and the great-grandmother of King David. It doesn’t appear that either of these campaigns were met with any real opposition, other than slow-moving bureaucracy, and is a victory for Jewish women whose claim to fame is not solely the greatness of their husband.
It is interesting, however, that even after first acknowledging Beruriyah’s own stature, the street sign also acknowledges that she was the wife of Rabbi Meir. I don’t know whether that was a compromise, or whether there was an acknowledgment on all sides that who she was married to is an aspect – if not the sole, or even the primary aspect – of who Beruriyah was.
What does the Torah say about all of this?
In the Torah as well, while certain individual women are highlighted as the context requires, women generally remain in the shadows. Indeed, from Parshat Shemot and onward, the Jewish people are generally referred to as the “B’nei Israel.” This is typically translated as the “Children of Israel,” but its most literal translation, it means the “Sons of Israel.” “Daughters of Israel,” in contrast, would be translated as “B’not Israel.”
“B’nei Israel” is, of course, understood as including all Jewish people: men, women, children. However it does so using a masculine title, with the wives and daughters swept along with their husbands and fathers.
Thus, toward the end of their stay in Egypt, “the B’nei Israel did according to Moses’ order, and they borrowed from the Egyptians silver objects, golden objects, and garments” (the original commandment was “let them borrow, each man from his friend and each woman from her friend, silver vessels and golden vessels” – so this reference was to both men and women); and “it came to pass on that very day, that G-d took the B’nei Israel out of the land of Egypt with their legions” (again, this is clearly both men and women).
Then, in this week’s Parshah, B’shalach: “the B’nei Israel were armed when they went up out of Egypt” (Were those men? Women? Both?); then, when they came to the Red Sea, “the B’nei Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold! the Egyptians were advancing after them. They were very frightened, and the B’nei Israel cried out to G-d.” But then G-d split the sea, and “the B’nei Israel came into the midst of the sea on dry land.” Finally, after witnessing the Egyptian army perish in the sea, “Moses and the B’nei Israel sang this song to the Lord.”
Here, however, the women emerge from the shadows.
“Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dance. And Miriam called out to them, Sing to G-d, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea!”
Here, even though the “B’nei Israel” had already sung a lengthy song, the Jewish women emerged, as an independent body and entity unto themselves, and sang their own song – apparently not content to have their song incorporated into the song of the B’nei Israel.
They were led by Miriam, described as “the prophetess, Aaron’s sister.” The Torah initially acknowledges Miriam. Then the Torah acknowledges that her greatness was her own – she herself was a prophetess. The Torah finally concludes her description with a reference to her older brother Aaron.
Doesn’t that sound like the new description for Bruriyah St.?
What was the purpose of the reference to Aaron? Was it a nod to a patriarchal culture, in which no woman could claim independent greatness without being tethered to a great man? Or was there some other reason?
It’s possible that this may actually be an implicit dispute among the biblical commentaries.
You see, according to one opinion, the reference to Aaron was simply in order to provide context to her status as a prophetess, since she had received her first prophecy prior to Moses’ birth, when she was only Aaron’s sister. Another opinion states that Aaron is mentioned here only because he would otherwise have been the only one of the three royal siblings to not have been mentioned; thus, he was mentioned for his own benefit – not Miriam’s.
A third and fourth opinion, however, is that Aaron is mentioned because he was the one who defended Miriam when she was later struck with leprosy, in Numbers; or because he was the oldest brother.
It seems that the latter opinions accept the fact that Miriam needed to be associated with one of her righteous brothers; the only question is why the Torah chooses Aaron, as opposed to Moses, who would have appeared to be a greater claim to fame.
The first two opinions, however, seem quite comfortable with Miriam being described simply as a prophetess, occupying her own pedestal, with no need for any male association; indeed, Aaron in this case is basking in Miriam’s greatness, as opposed to the reverse. Indeed, Rabbeinu Bachya emphasizes precisely this point. He points out the many fundamental Torah precepts that have been introduced by Jewish women throughout the ages, such as a depiction of the World to Come through Abigail, the notion of the resurrection of the dead and the principles of prayer through Chanah, and the notion of reincarnation through the woman of Tekoah; demonstrating that women are not secondary, but rather primary participants in the transmission of Torah and the preservation and evolution of Jewish tradition.
There is no question that between the splitting of the Red Sea and the renaming of Bruriyah St., Jewish women have spent much time in the shadows of their men. However, at least B’Shalach appears to be a celebration of women stepping out into the light and claiming their own legacy.
 Exodus, 12:35.
 Exodus, 11:2.
 Exodus, 12:51.
 Exodus, 13:18.
 Exodus, 14:10. Given the level of faith attributed to the Jewish women who left Egypt, it seems that this fear would have been out of character for them, suggesting that in this case the reference to B’nei Israel may have been to just the men. Similarly, later in Exodus (19:3), G-d tells Moses: “So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the B’nei Israel.” The commentaries there explain that “the house of Jacob” was a reference to the Jewish women, whereas “B’nei Israel” was a reference to (only) the Jewish men.
 Exodus, 14:22.
 Exodus, 15:1.
 Exodus, 15:20-21.
 See Rashi.
 See Rabbeinu Bachya, Ramban
 See Rashi, from the Mechilta.
 Numbers, 10:10-12.
 See Rashbam.
 It is noteworthy that Aaron’s mention was in connection with Miriam, and not Moses, who is not described as “the brother of Aaron.”
 See II Samuel, Chapter 14.
 Obviously, this is not intended as a comprehensive analysis of the role that women play in the Torah, or even – for example – why, in this week’s Parshah, the Torah discusses Jewish women distinguishing themselves specifically within the context of song and dance.