In today’s portion we read about the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, which concludes with “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all of the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15:20-21).
The Torah pays great homage to Miriam. She is granted the title ‘the prophetess’. She plays a pivotal role in the Exodus, watching by the Nile to see what will happen to her baby brother. She witnesses his rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter and sees to it that Moses is given into the hands of his true mother. Without that, he would never have known he was a Hebrew. The prophet Micah presents her as one of the three sent by God to redeem Israel from the house of bondage, “Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (Micah 6:4).
We know very little about Miriam’s activities other than these two incidents – one at the Nile and one at the Sea. The only other story told about her is a negative one, when she and her brother Aaron spread gossip about Moses’ wife and she is punished with a skin disease (Numbers 12). Even there the Torah tells us that “the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted” (Numbers 12:15), a sign of their care and concern for her.
Rabbinic tradition went even further and provided a reason for Miriam being called a prophetess. According to midrash , Miriam persuaded her parents not to refrain from having another child when Pharaoh issued his decree to kill all the male infants, and Miriam prophesied that this child would be the savior who would lead the people Israel to freedom. In the midrash, when the child is put into the basket on the Nile, Amram, the father, says to Miriam, “What has become of her prophecy now?!” But she still has faith and makes it her business to watch and see what will happen, and indeed plays a pivotal role in the child’s future.
Although Judaism has traditionally been a largely patriarchal religion, from the beginning women have played an important, even a crucial, role. In later times there were other women leaders of the people: Deborah, a judge and prophetess; Yael, who slayed the enemy Sisra; and Hulda, a prophetess who lived at the time of Jeremiah and was consulted by kings – to say nothing of Ruth and Esther. Having women as prophets and judges tells us that women were not totally excluded from the realm of religious leadership.
Unfortunately these leadership roles disappeared in post-Biblical times. Now women have once again begun to play such a role. In the Masorti movement women have functioned as rabbis and cantors for several decades and have made an enormous contribution to Judaism as teachers, halakhic experts, scholars and religious leaders. We have been spiritually enriched by their work. The voice of women can no longer be silenced.
Just as the celebration at the sea was not complete without the added voice of the women, so too our celebration, our religious life, is not complete without the addition of the voice of women and what they can contribute to Jewish worship and Jewish life. To the voice of Moses must be added the voice of Miriam.
Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer, a past President of the International Rabbinical Assembly, served as interim rabbi at New London for two years. He is a well-known author whose latest book Akiva: Life,Legend,Legacy (Jewish Publication Society) appeared in October and will be featured in February at the London Jewish Book Week.