Learning from Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter


When President Barak Obama addressed the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009, he spoke from the deepest and most universal places of the three monotheistic religions. Translated into Hebrew Biblical language, Obama was practically quoting from the first verses of Genesis in which we discover one of the most transformative ideas in the entire human drama: “And God created humans in God’s Image – male and female, God created them!” This shared religious teaching is both the foundation of our monotheistic relations and the essence of peace and reconciliation work…

by Naamah Kelman

JERUSALEM – There are two main challenges to the field of religious peacemaking: a widespread skepticism towards the potentially positive influence of religion, and the muting of female influence within religious and political affairs. In this region, religious patriarchy continues to reign as women suffer secondary status in all matters of personal status (marriage, divorce, etc.). Those women wishing to promote equality and justice, especially through religious tradition, face a steep path of resistance and even outright repression. Nevertheless, religious feminism has been both an evolutionary and revolutionary process around the world. I deeply believe the same can be true for advancing co-existence and peace. The very same forces that are slowly but surely liberating women are the very same forces that can move us toward a just solution in this region.

One of the earliest figures embraced by many Jewish women as a great role model is Miriam, in the book of Exodus. Often depicted near water in the Biblical narrative— when she watches over her brother Moses or when she dances across the Sea of Reeds during the exodus from Egypt—Miriam is dedicated to freedom and healing. Many do not know that the very first “interfaith” gathering actually occurred long ago at the Nile when Miriam meets the daughter of Pharaoh and together they save the baby Moses from the decree of death. Defying their destinies and also the male establishments, the Egyptian Princess and the Hebrew slave-girl-destined-for-leadership find sisterhood and seek justice together. They choose to affirm life in the shadows of death and enslavement. These role models found in my ancient tradition have been re-activated in the early 21st century as women around the world are increasingly stepping out and rising up to activism and leadership.

I will not whitewash the fact that in my tradition there are also sacred texts and later interpretations that are at best hurtful to the Other, and at worst dangerous. A small but influential minority uses these texts for the wrong purposes, to be divisive and hostile. These unconstructive voices are the reason why many secular peace activists would rather stay away from Jewish sources or religious language.

It is, however, my firm belief that a democratic-Jewish reading of our tradition can be the basis for building communities and institutions in Israel that model progressive Jewish values such as pluralism, equality, and social justice and promoting peaceful co-existence with our neighbours. The ancient Biblical prophets called upon us to protect the weak, to help the infirm, to heal the broken, and to be engaged in the world. The words of the prophet Isaiah still thunder through the centuries, questioning whether bringing sacrifices makes us pious when we should be feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.

How do we translate this on a national scale? How do we feed both the national aspirations of both Jews and Palestinians without starving either of these ambitions? How do we protect women and children (and men for that matter) from the horrors of war and terror?

We in Israel are very good at asking these questions. Surely, small steps that include dialogue and engagement between communities will help. Teaching our students and children to respect and listen to the suffering of others will also move us closer together. Teaching texts and traditions that bring us closer rather than divide us, using song and prayer, will keep the possibility of hope and renewal alive.

This is how humankind has survived and thrived despite war and bloodshed. Now in the frontlines, women can bring a new voice, one of a shared experience of both suffering and joy. Like Miriam and the daughter of Pharaoh who joined hands and defied authority, we can set our people on a journey to freedom and justice.

Rabbi Naamah Kelman is the first woman ordained as a rabbi in Israel at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem where she now serves as Dean. She is active in interfaith activities, feminist causes and the Jewish-Democratic Renaissance of Israel. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) for a series on politics and religious interpretation in the Arab-Israeli context.

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