“The Midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them…” (Exodus 1:17)
Shifra and Puah, two midwives, are the earliest exemplars of the place of civil disobedience as a moral force. Ordered to kill all male Jewish children at birth, they refused on moral grounds to follow the edict of Pharaoh.
The Midrash tries to understand who these two women are. Are they Jewish midwives who could not bring themselves to kill their own or are they simply two Egyptian women who were the midwives designated to assist the Hebrew women? Some believe that Shifra and Puah are actually Miriam and Yocheved, the sister and mother of Moses. The Torah is, I believe, purposefully unclear about the identities of Shifra and Puah.
What is important is their act of defiance, their stand for what is morally correct, and their willingness to take a stand. In our age we have painfully come to learn what the consequences are of “just following orders”. Orders can be moral or immoral. But taking a stand, confronting what is wrong in a society, is called for at more than just the dramatic moments of life and death we read of this week in Exodus.
Our Jewish tradition values all human beings. We are all made in the image of God. We all have the same moral worth. It is thus all the more difficult to witness the continuing efforts to make women second class citizens in Israel. Today this takes the form of trying to limit the voices of women singing in public for the Israel Defense Forces, not allowing women to appear in advertising posters, gender separation on public transportation, and efforts to impose private standards of modesty on a society at large.
The story of the Exodus is part of our primary Jewish narrative. The Exodus is certainly the story of our people engaged with our God. One cannot “do” Jewish theology without delving into the story of our Exodus from Egypt and our journey from slavery to freedom. The Exodus is also the early story of our Jewish polity, a polity that embraces ethics in the public square, allows for corporeal rulers to be wrong and our obligation to confront them when they are unethical.
When we work in Israel is to build a more inclusive, democratic, pluralistic Israeli society we are standing on the shoulders of generations of Jews starting with Shifra and Puah. When we demonstrate for equal rights and against rabbinic control of personal status we are following Shifra and Puah. When we build pluralistic schools and egalitarian congregations we are modeling the ethics we learn from Shifra and Puah. They saved many children’s lives by their actions. We are trying to be good midwives to an Israeli society that will be open, supportive, and encouraging of all its citizens reaching their full potential.
In the Talmud (Sotah 11b) we learn that “In reward for the righteous women of that generation, our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt.” The midwives Shifra and Puah were two women of that generation. Today, women, as well as men, who work for a better Israel, who defend her when she needs defending and work for full equality, civility, and pluralism in Israel when there is a need to do so, are the newest midwives of a strong vibrant Israel and Jewish life.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah.