On International Women's Day
If you looked into the sky last night you would have seen the new moon of Adar Sheni – the leap month – the thirteenth month that completes a Jewish leap year. These days most of us trust our phones to tell us what day it is and what time it is, but of course the older trusted rhythm is to follow the waxing and the waning of the moon. A new moon signals the beginning of a new month – Rosh Chodesh – traditionally a holiday for women.
According to midrash, Rosh Chodesh became a holiday for women as a reward for their refusal to surrender their jewelry for the creation of the Golden Calf. Because of their righteousness, the women were exonerated from working on Rosh Chodesh. Unfortunately our society has lost this connection with this biblical holiday, and even the most enlightened employer is unlikely to grant this day off today in Singapore. But we do have a wonderful Rosh Chodesh group – the cross-communal Jewish Women in Singapore – who earlier this week celebrated the first anniversary of their creation.
Today is International Women’s Day – also not a holiday exactly – but a chance for reflection and celebration. When we think of Jewish women to celebrate – they are not in short supply! I am sure that each of us can think of Jewish women who are or have been very important in our lives. Of course it may be your own mother or female relative – and since biblical times we have celebrated such women of valour – with the book of Proverbs telling us that an eshet chayil –
“Her worth is far more than rubies. 11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. 12 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.” (Proverbs 31.10-12)
Some of us may have problems with how this text situates the idealised woman in the domestic household – but it is traditionally sung each Friday night around the Shabbat table, honouring the traditional role of a Jewish woman.
And yet the Hebrew Bible has many amazing female characters who break the mould, who we would do well to remember and honour on a day like today.
I think of Deborah – the Judge of Israel whose bravery and leadership clearly outmatched the men around her at the time. When she hammered her tent-peg through the milk-sated Sisera she struck a blow for all those who say women cannot fight.
There’s also Miriam – sister of Moses and Aaron whose prowess in finding water is crucial for the survival of the Israelites as they left Egypt and wandered in the desert. Scholars believe that the final version of the Torah tones down Miriam’s role in certain respects, in order to fit the time of the redaction.
And of course – in this time and this season – as we enter the month of Adar – we also think of Esther. At Purim later this month we will be reading her book – the book of Esther – and marvelling at how she saved the Jewish people from the wickedness of Haman and the foolish passivity of her husband, King Ahasuerus.
My favourite definition of feminism is that: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.” I’m not here to mansplain and apologise for the male-centredness of the bible by giving a few counterexamples of heroic biblical women. Rather I’m comfortable with the four part approach of Yael Shemesh, namely
(1) Emphasizing that the Bible is a patriarchal and androcentric—some would say misogynistic—text;
(2) highlighting the voices for equality that can be found in the Bible;
(3) focusing on biblical women and recounting her-story rather than the traditional his-tory that has been dominant for generations;
(4) discovering the female authors of biblical texts, or at least the women’s voices that emerge from it.
This kind of approach colours how we read the bible in the UHC Torah Club, not looking either to excuse or condemn the bible for simply being a product of his time, but rather exploring and relishing the richness of our classic text, our etz chayim, our tree of life. If you would like to participate in this exploration, do let me know – either after the service or by message or simply by turning up to our next session next Friday. By adding your voice to the discussion you are participating in torah – the oral torah that is as much a part of our tradition as the text on which we base our lives.
In our community and in the progressive movement we place great importance on sexual equality, and understand that men and women should be treated equally. We have made great strides in the past century – with bat mitzvah ceremonies becoming prevalent, and women rabbis being ordained since the 1970s. The majority of the Presidents of this synagogue the UHC have been women – and we are grateful for their wisdom and their leadership and their hard work. One day I hope that the UHC will break another glass ceiling and be home to the first Asian woman rabbi leading a community in our region too – it’s early days but it’s something that has yet to happen either here or in Tokyo or in Hong Kong.
I wish you all Shabbat Shalom and a happy international women’s day. Let’s celebrate that – while there’s still much more work for us to do - more and more women can do and be whatever they want now and should be celebrated for their achievements. Shabbat shalom!