Torah reading: Exodus 13:17 to 17:16.  
Haftarah reading: Judges 4:4 to end of chapter 5.

I volunteered for D'var Torah this week since I’ve always been quite a feminist -- or, as I prefer to put it, an advocate for gender equality. I was the sort of 6-year old girl who would ask her mom, “Why do people say ‘mankind’ and not ‘humankind’?” or, “Why is God called ‘He’ in the Bible?” Later, I delighted in fictional characters like Alanna from the "Lioness Quartet" or Eowyn from Lord of the Rings, as well as historical figures like Nellie McClung, a prominent advocate for women’s sufferage in Canada. “Yeah! Girl Power!” I would cheer.

So naturally I was thrilled to read Deborah’s story in Judges. A woman who not only judged Israel but who also directed an army -- indeed, such a strong, charismatic woman that her compatriot Barak refused to go to war unless she accompanied him! Even better, Jael, who killed the enemy commander Sisera in a surprise maneuver while he was asleep. As a bonus, over in the Torah reading we have Miriam singing in triumph with all the Israelite women after the Red Sea crossing. Surely these stories are a brilliant vindication of Girl Power, if anything is?

However, re-reading the Deborah/Jael story with fresh eyes, I wondered if it is truly liberating as it appears at first sight, and concluded that -- like Miriam’s song in Exodus -- it may reinforce the very stereotypes and limited gender roles that it seems to challenge.

More below the fold.

Deborah, Jael, and Miriam

The story begins with Deborah, a prophetess, leading (or judging) Israel. (“Girl Power!") It’s interesting, though, that even in this first sentence the words “wife of Lappidoth” are tacked on. Apparently Deborah’s identity is not secure enough in her own right, as a woman, a prophetess and a judge; she needs to be a “wife” as well. (This despite the fact that Lappidoth is never mentioned again anywhere!)

Deborah resolves to free her people from oppression and calls upon Barak to muster an army. She formulates a strategy for the battle; they will lure Sisera’s army, with its iron chariots, into a swampy place by the river where the wheels will end up clogged. Barak insists that he won’t go unless Deborah goes with him. She agrees, but warns him that because of his protests, he won’t have the honor of killing the enemy commander -- “the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.”

Gasp -- a woman! Unheard of! Perhaps I’m reading too much into the text, but I sense a distinct undertone of rebuke and even shame here. “Barak, you pathetic excuse for a man! Because you’re such a coward, now a woman is going to kill Sisera!” (Note, also, the subtle implication of “the Lord will deliver Sisera...”; apparently, the idea that a woman could simply go out and kill Sisera without any divine aid is unthinkable.)

The battle goes just as planned and Sisera ends up fleeing to an ally’s tent. Jael, “wife of Heber,” invites him in, assuring him that he’s safe and giving him food and shelter. Once he’s asleep, she picks up a tent peg and hammers it through his skull in what seems like a rather underhanded maneuver. Yes, she shows great courage in seizing her opportunity to rid Israel of a hated enemy. But in emphasizing Jael’s deviousness, even treachery (for wouldn’t this violate basic rules of hospitality?) I feel this story reinforces anti-female stereotypes far more than challenging them. The implication seems to be that women are untrustworthy, opportunistic creatures who can’t even defeat a man in a fair fight and have to resort to stabbing them in their sleep. Perhaps it’s better than “women as seductresses” (Judges 16) or “women as victims” (much of Judges but especially chapter 19) -- but it still leaves a lot to be desired.

Popping over to the Torah reading for a moment, we find Miriam leading the women of Israel in their triumphant song after Pharoah’s army has been defeated. Great -- but, of course, Moses sings first. Miriam’s song is only a faint, four-line echo of Moses’ far more elaborate song, reflecting Miriam’s limited role in the events of Exodus. Moses is the leader of the Israelites, and Aaron is the High Priest, but Miriam? She’s just Moses’ older sister, who helped save his life once as a baby. End of story.

“Strong Female Characters”

A few months ago, Sophie McDougall published an essay entitled “I Hate Strong Female Characters” in New Statesman. In it, she argues that the trend of intentionally writing “strong” female characters in movies or novels actually makes these female characters weaker and more one-dimensional. In her words:

“Are our best-loved male heroes Strong Male Characters? Is, say, Sherlock Holmes strong?...It’s not just that the answer is “of course”, it’s that it’s the wrong question. [...] Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”
Deborah, and Jael, are both undeniably Strong Female Characters. (Deborah’s strength is more of the spiritual and mental kind, while Jael’s is undeniably physical -- it can’t be easy to hammer a tent peg through a man’s skull! -- as well as emotional.)

But are they anything else? We know Deborah is a prophetess who is, presumably, wise and just. She’s also, along with Balak, a talented poet. All this undoubtedly makes her even more Strong; but we don’t learn much else about her as a human being. And we know absolutely nothing else about Jael.

Compare how Moses is depicted throughout Exodus. He’s a short-tempered, selfless, reticent, conflicted, humble, impulsive, deeply loyal, sometimes a bit of a coward but more often deeply courageous, fiery, intuitive, tenacious man.

What about Aaron? He gets less “screen time” than Moses, but we can still piece together a portrait of him: confident (and sometimes overconfident!), a smooth talker, charismatic, extroverted, more intellectual than intuitive, somewhat prone to selling out, a born leader who’s sometimes envious of Moses’ superior status.

And Miriam? Well, she’s Moses’ sister.

...I’m not saying that the inclusion of female characters who happen to be strong (in whatever way) is a Bad Thing. It’s merely that, for them to be truly three-dimensional, we need to know a little bit more about them as humans: their flaws as well as their strengths. No doubt the Bible does a lot better than a great deal of ancient literature in this regard, but it’s just a starting point.

The Bechdel Test

A number of years ago, the cartoonist Alison Bechdel proposed a test for evaluating gender bias in literary or cinematic works. The test is very simple: does the work contain two (or more) named women who talk to one another about something other than a man? If all four conditions are met, the work passes the test; otherwise, it fails. A surprising number of contemporary movies in particular tend to fail the test, showing that, though we may have come a long way in gender equality, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

The blogger Paidiske tried applying the Bechdel test to each book of the Bible (both the Christian and Hebrew Bibles, including the Apocrypha.) She found that only a single book, Ruth, from the canonical Hebrew Bible passed the test. (Tobit, from the Apocrypha, also passed, as did Mark and Luke from the Christian New Testament.) Interestingly, Exodus would have passed if either Pharoah’s daughter or Miriam’s mother had been given a name; and Judges would have passed if Deborah and Jael had talked to one another, instead of, individually, to the men around them.

Obviously, the Bechdel test is quite informal and not an iron-clad rule for determining gender bias. But it does speak to the fact that, though Deborah and Jael may be prominent female characters, they’re also deeply isolated, appearing only briefly within a book that deals with men’s stories and is told primarily in men’s voices.


At this point I’d like to open things up to discussion. Since I’m not from a Jewish background, I’m curious what many people here think about the issues of gender equality and women’s rights within Judaism. (For example, historically, women were forbidden to become rabbis or study the Torah. I’m wondering how this came about, given that Israel was once judged by a woman!)

Thanks for reading and for commenting! :)

6:27 PM PT: Wow -- thanks everyone for the comments, and especially thank you Rescue Rangers! I just got back and am looking forward to replying to everyone's thoughts. Thanks again!

Originally posted to Street Prophets on Fri Jan 10, 2014 at 10:39 AM PST.

Also republished by Elders of Zion and Community Spotlight.

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