Strong, Savvy Biblical Women; Clueless Men

After my lecture on “Strong Biblical Women” in Bordesholm a woman came up to me and said, “You should write a book about what you just told us.”

I was very touched.

I am not ready to write a book on the subject, but I hope this essay is of interest.

In preparation for this lecture I asked my rabbinic colleagues in a closed forum on Facebook (due to strict confidentiality requirements of the site, I am not referring to any of them by name) to offer an example of a woman they would include if they were giving the lecture. Their suggestions were very helpful, and I am most grateful to them.

I began by offering a quotation that I have chosen to appear at the bottom of on every page on my web site: “Repeatedly in the Bible, it is the woman who ‘gets it’ and the man who is ‘clueless.’

I originally wrote those words in defense of Eve who, “has been maligned for generations for the supposed “fall of man” when in fact; she is – in my view –the heroine of “the elevation of humanity.”

(From Why the Kof? Getting the Best of Rabbi Fuchs?)

I chose to leave Eve and several other very strong women out of my lecture because of the Talmudic lesson I learned from my late Professor Samuel Sandmel many years ago: Tasafta mirubah, lo tasafta,” (B. Rosh Hashanah, 4b)which essentially means, “If you try to do too much, you end up doing nothing at all.”

In the course of a one-hour presentation, that was a vital point to remember.

I began, then, with Rebecca. One may certainly question the way she went about things, but one cannot deny that she had greater insight into what God needed in terms of an heir to the Covenant of Abraham than did her husband Isaac. She acted decisively on her instinct.

Because the story is complex and time was a factor, I did not delve into the character of Tamar and her impact on Judah in the Joseph Story. If I ever should write the book suggested to me, Tamar will receive lengthy treatment as she does in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. (WiIfM? FOiBN)

For time reasons as well, I did not delve, as several suggested I should, into the fascinating case of Zelophehad’s daughters. Their story marks a vital first step in establishing a woman’s right to inherit her family’s property.

For the same reason (and because they too are written about in WiIfM? FOiBN) I only briefly touched on the vital roles played by

six women who made it possible for Moses to stand before Pharaoh to demand the liberation of our people.

Because I was speaking to a church group in Germany I made one exception: I dealt at some length with the role of the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who defied Pharaoh’s decree to kill any Hebrew boys they helped birth. As I point out in WiIfM? FOiBN:

The example of Shiphrah and Puah stand as

a sharp rebuke for those who excuse their

ethical misdeeds with the claim they had no choice—they were simply following orders from their superiors.

Case in point: During the trial of Nazi war criminals

at Nuremburg, Germany, defendant after defendant

attempted to justify his action on the basis that he was just following orders. The courage of Shiphrah and Puah is timeless testimony that “just following orders” is no excuse.


(In the book I cite Nora Levin’s, z’l, example in The Holocaust, pp. 241-244, of the commander of Einsatzgruppe D, Otto Ohlendorf.)


I next spoke about Deborah from the book of Judges. In her time pagan Canaanite forces under the direction of Sisera were vexing Israelite settlements.  At that time there was no nation of Israel, just a loosely organized group of tribes and as individual entities, they were vulnerable to invasion.

Deborah successfully united the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali to thwart the incursions. She summoned Barak, a leading General, but he refused to lead the troops unless Deborah went with him into battle. She was a judge, military leader, prophet and poet, one of the Bile’s strongest characters of either gender.

I also mentioned Samson’s unnamed mother. She received God’s vision that she would bare a son who would begin to redeem the Israelites from the Philistines, but when she told her husband, he was sure they would die. But Manoah’s wife knew better. She was another example of a savvy woman with a clueless husband.

My next example was Hannah, Samuel’s mother. Compared to her Eli, the High Priest at Shiloh was a bumbling fool.

Five Megillot and three are about women.

There are five books of the Bible designated as Megillot(scrolls), Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations Ecclesiastes and Esther, and these are associated with Passover, Shavuot, Tisha B’Av, Sukkot and Purim respectively.

Three of the five Megillot are about very strong women. Purim celebrates the courage of Vashti and Esther. Song of Songs(as per the interpretation, I arrived at when studying Song of Songsin my D.Min program at Vanderbilt Divinity school with the Womanist scholar, Renita Weems) tells of a woman strong enough to resist the blandishments of King Solomon’s harem to follow her shepherd lover.

I concluded my talk with Ruth The story tells of Naomi’s faithfulness and Ruth’s loyalty and the reward she receives to become the great grandmother of King David. David, according to both Jewish and Christian traditions, is to be the ancestor of the Messiah.

Another woman I left out whom several of my colleagues suggested I include was Huldah the Prophetess, who exerted strong influence on King Josiah at the end of the seventh pre-Christian century. Because of my colleagues’ suggestions though I did read up on her and was able to include her in the answer to one of the questions from those who attended.

Again, I left out important women due to time limitations. Still I hope the examples of Rebecca, the six woman who saved Moses’ life, Deborah, Hannah, Samson’s mother, Vashti, Esther, the heroine of Song of Songs, Naomi and Ruth were sufficient to convince participants that far from being unimportant, many biblical women outshine the men around them in terms of leadership ability and perception of what it was God needed them to do. They are important roe models for young women today and an inspiration to all of us.





What Happened at Sinai?

landscape mountains clouds fujisan
Is this what Sinai looked like? (Photo by Donald Tong on 0

Shavuot commemorates the pivotal moment when God revealed Torah on Mount Sinai.

So unique in history did the Sages of our people envision the event at Sinai that they imagined the whole world coming to a complete silent standstill.  In the words of the Midrash:

When God revealed Torah at Mount Sinai, no bird sang, no cow mooed, no bad of grass rustled in the wind. (Shemot Rabbah29:9)

 What makes this moment so unique?

At Sinai the Covenant God made first with Abraham alone became the privilege and sacred responsibility of the entire Jewish people, past, present and future.

What actually took place at Sinai? It should surprise no one that our Sages fertile minds produced a number differing Midrashim. Here are four: 

No one else wanted it.

In one God offers Torah to all the nations of the world. But when they hear what it says –Don’t cheat, don’t steal, treat the stranger the widow, the orphan and the poor with special dignity and respect – they all reject it out of hand. (See Sefer Ha-Agadah (Bialik and Rovenitzky, editors, vol. 1, p. 59). Only Israel accepted God’s offer.

The Godfather Midrash

Another Midrash, that I like to call The Godfather Midrash, has God lift Mount Sinai and hold it over the heads of the assembled Children of Israel.  Then God says, either you accept and pledge to observe my Torah or I shall drop the mountain on top of you. (B. Shabbat 88A and B. Avodah Zarah 2B)

This Midrash teaches us the vital lesson that our only purpose as a people is to be teachers and examples of the ideals of Torah to the world.  Indeed by adherence to these ideals we become in the words of the Prophet Isaiah; “A light to the nations’ (Isaiah 49:6) a worthy example for all.  If we are not willing to accept the responsibility of adhering to the Torah’s ideals, there is no good reason for us to continue to exist.

There is even a third Midrash that states that Israel’s willingness to accept Torah was so important to God that the Almighty threatened to break the promise made after the flood never to destroy the world again unless Israel agrees to embrace the Torah and its ideals (B. Shabbat 88A).

We must show we are worthy

A fourth Midrash stresses the importance of passing the ideal of Torah to future generations. In this one the question is not, are we willing to accept the Torah?  It is rather, how will we demonstrate to God that we are worthy to receive it? When God asks us to offer guarantors of our worthiness, we offer the deeds of our patriarchs and our prophets but God finds neither of these acceptable.  Only when we pledge the loyalty of our children to God’s teachings does God reveal the Torah to our people. (Shir Ha ShirimRabbah, Chapter 1, Section 4, Midrash 1)

The rabbinic method of interpretation encouraged creative thought.  There was rarely only one acceptable point of view on any question. Indeed there are no fewer than four different rabbinic versions of how the greatest moment in our religious history came to be. There are others as well. Each, though, stress our privilege and responsibility to study Torah and pass its teachings on to the net generation.

Hag Shavuot Sameach!

Busy and Fulfilling Five Days

Sunrise over Husum

Road Trip

If Vickie and I were a baseball team, we have just completed our longest “Road Trip” of the season.

At noon on Friday we began our two and a half hour train trip to Husum. There we were the guests for four nights in the charming “Holiday Apartment” of our wonderful friends, Rita and Horst Blunk. (See Blog post: “Rita and Horst.”)

This past Shabbat eve it was my privilege once again to conduct Kabbalat services at the Jewish synagogue in Friedrichstadt. The synagogue was not totally razed by the Nazis on Kristallnacht (as so many others were). The Nazis threw hand grenades inside and destroyed all Jewish artifacts.  Then they commandeered it as an Officers’ Headquarters. 

After the war it was returned to the Jewish community. There is a large photograph on glass where the ark once stood that shows the destruction of that spot.

Since there was no longer a Jewish community in Friedrichsstadt, the synagogue became a cultural center and Jewish museum. In 2015 I had the privilege of conducting the first Jewish service in that city since the Nazi takeover.

What an occasion that was. 70 people jammed the small sanctuary, at least 50 of whom were representatives of the Christian community who had come to pay their respects.

This Shabbat’s service was a much smaller affair, and I guess that is a good thing. I am glad that a Jewish service in Friedrichstadt is no longer a novelty.

On Shabbat, Rita and Horst had planned to take us on an excursion to the North Sea Island of Sylt. The weather, though, was too cold, so instead we toured other charming areas in the North Sea Region. It was a wonderful day.

We see more sheep, cows and horses than people (almost) in Germany’s beautiful North Sea coastal region.

Sunday was a long, busy and very fulfilling day. In the morning, I delivered the sermon at the St. Marien Lutheran Church in Husum at the invitation of Pastor Friedemann Magaard. Pastor Magaard has an admirable history of activity aimed at interfaith understanding and affirmation. To acknowledge and protest the uptick in anti-Semitic activity in Germany (see my essay on this subject in Dr. Magaard wore a kipah during the service.

It was a privilege to return to his church. 

Speaking in the Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) in Husum

During the service, Dr. Magaard invited any interested worshippers to join me for a study session in their new community building next door. I wondered if anyone would come, but to my joy thirty people crowded into the small room to study the coming week’s Haftarah portion from Hosea. I was moved by the depth of the questions the participants asked and by the observations they shared.

Torah study at Marienkirche, Husum. To my left is Dr. Uwe Ehrich, who translates for me in Friedrichstadt and Husum.

Afterwards, Rita, Horst, Vickie and I enjoyed a scrumptious lunch prepared by Friedemann’s wife, Andrea, an Urgent Care physician, in the charming garden of their lovely home.

In the evening at the invitation of Dr. Marcus Friedrich, I delivered the sermon at services in the magnificent St. Nickolai-kirche, the largest cathedral in Flensburg. 

Dr. Marcus Friedrich and I at the conclusion of the service in the Nikolai-kirche in Flensburg

After the service a young couple, the woman from Ireland and the man from Israel asked if I would say a blessing for their infant son. I was deeply moved by their request and was happy to do so.

Offering a blessing for this couples infant son

On Monday, I presented a program run at the Catholic Church in Flensburg. The organizer of the program, Claudia Linker, who wrote a generous endorsement on the back cover of And Often the First Jew, skillfully translated my remarks into German.

Tuesday during the day Vickie and I taught a wonderful group of HS students at the Tast Gymnasium in Flensburg. Then in the evening Rita and Horst drove us to Kiel for the fourth of seminar sessions I am conducting on “Revelation in Jewish Thought.” After the seminar Pastor Martin Pommerening drove us back to Bad Segeberg where we tumbled into bed with wonderful memories of a fulfilling trip and in eager anticipation of a “day off” Wednesday. 

Nightfall in Husum