I’ve been thinking a lot about Shifra and Puah lately.
You remember them, don’t you? In the Book of Exodus, they were among the remarkable half-dozen women who blazed the trail for Moses. Specifically, Shifra and Puah were the midwives who refused to throw the male Hebrew newborns into the Nile to drown, in defiance of Pharaoh’s command. Their failure to follow orders was the first recorded instance of civil disobedience in the Torah.
Though the sages identify Shifra and Puah with Yocheved and Miriam, Moses’s mother and sister, in truth we cannot even be sure if the midwives were Israelites. The Hebrew phrase describing them may be read either as “the Hebrew midwives” OR as “the midwives to the Hebrews.” In defense of the latter translation, the commentator Luzzato reasons: Hebrew midwives could hardly be expected to murder the children of their own people!
The Torah never “name drops” without reason, and the ambiguity about the midwives’ identity is equally important. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Torah is teaching us that “this kind of moral courage transcends race and nationality.”
It is both very hard, and very easy, to recall that the march in Selma, Alabama, happened only fifty-two years ago. The recently-made movie “Selma” omitted mention of Jewish involvement – and in particular, the presence of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who walked arm-in-arm with Dr. King. Yet Rabbi Heschel was there, along with other rabbis and Jewish supporters. Moreover, both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., under the aegis of the Leadership Conference, which was for decades also housed at that address.
Why was this partnership in the fight for civil rights so natural? Partly, yes, because of Shifra and Puah. And also because from its very beginning, our Torah proposes the radical notion that every person is created in the image of the Divine. In antiquity, and up to and into the 17th century, only kings claimed divine authority and/or lineage.
The message that Divinity is in every soul, together with the legacy of Shifra and Puah, is why we, as Jews, have for so long been at the forefront of efforts “to address persistent discrimination in voting, housing and employment against not only women and people of color but also in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and the disabled community.” (Religious Action Center website: www.rac.org).
To borrow from Robert Allen Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, our times, they are a-changin’. Perhaps not since the 1960s has our kind of radicalism – our voices, feet and hearts – been more necessary in the defense of people of color, women, the disabled and the LGBTQ community. Given our heritage of Torah, it is incumbent upon us to care for our fellow human beings, and to stand up for their ethical treatment and civil rights.
The Religious Action Center website, cited above, is not only full of information and inspiration; it is also a source of petitions and other action items. Click on www.rac.org to sign up for their email updates, which can be customized to help you pursue your own personal passion for justice – and to share that passion with others in making our world a better place for all.
May the force of Shifra and Puah be ever with us.
Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein