Donate to RNS

When Moses had a #MeToo moment

This year was saw the Tiananmen Square of Testosterone. Moses saw it coming.

“Moses defending the daughters of Jethro,” J. and B. Lebrun, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Felton Bequest, 1926

(RNS) — You don’t see every revolution coming.

A year ago, no one would have predicted the fall of Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men who have been accused of (and in many cases, have confessed to) sexual harassment.

Let’s just call it the Tiananmen Square of Testosterone – the moment when women, all over the world, stood up in front of the tanks of malignant masculinity and screamed: Enough.


That revolution has already changed the world, and it is just getting started.

What’s next?

#MeToo is coming to the Jewish world.

Let’s call it “MeTooJew.”

I predict that it will come in the form of accusations of sexual harassment against high-level Jewish communal executives. The targets of those accusations will include major donors who have wielded coercive sexual power against female staff members.

It is already starting to happen.

I would like to see another kind of #MeToo movement for the Jewish communal world.

I would like to see #PayMeRight.

The #PayMeRight movement will respond to a chilling fact:  Jewish women are paid lower than their male peers who hold the same kinds of positions.

Frankly, I would like to see protest demonstrations at the 2018 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, as well as at national meetings of every Jewish organization.

Because it is one thing for American Jewish leaders to bemoan the horrendous treatment of women at the Kotel in Jerusalem.

Far better for us to change the behaviors toward women in the boardrooms and executive suites of American Judaism.

And men, as well as women, need to be on the front lines of that battle for equal pay and for equal dignity (ask any female Jewish communal leader, especially clergy, about this — and prepare for those stories to shake and stir you).

All of which brings me to Moses, who stars in this week’s Torah portion.

How does Moses begin his career? Not only as a teacher, or as a liberator, but as an activist against oppression: killing the Egyptian taskmaster, who is beating a Hebrew slave, and breaking up a fight between two Hebrew slaves.

Let’s review the story, from the opening chapters of the book of Exodus.

Moses has killed the Egyptian taskmaster, which was a sufficient reason for him to want to get out of town — quickly.

He flees to Midian. He stops at a well for water. He sees a group of shepherds harassing some young women at the well.

Those young women just happen to be the daughters of Jethro, the major priest of Midian. One of them turns out to be Zipporah, who will ultimately become Moses’ wife.

Moses sticks up for the women and drives the — note to self: Research the ancient Midianite term for “jerks” — away.

(I would like to imagine a counter-Torah, in which the daughters of Jethro are totally tough women. I would like to imagine them saying to Moses: “Hey, Tall Dark Stranger from Egypt — it’s OK. We got this. You punks wanna rumble?”)

Why did Moses perform this act of bravery? These shepherds must have been hardened tough guys — the kind of bullies who separate you from your lunch money.

And yet, Moses took them on. It was just him against the rabble.

Why did he do that?

Especially because Moses has no real responsibility for those women. It is not as if they are his family, or his people.

But, at that moment, Moses goes beyond the borders of his own family and people, and he intervenes for the sake of others.

Where did he learn to do that?

I am wondering: Who tutored Moses in the art of moral outrage and courage?

It could not have been Pharaoh, his adopted grandfather.

No, come to think of it — the entire first chapter of Exodus is the story of strong women.

  • Pharaoh’s daughter, whom the ancient sages name Bityah. She had seen the infant Moses sailing down the Nile in a basket. The sages say, fancifully, that at that moment, her arm elongated.

Like a modern-day comic book superheroine, she stretched out her newly elasticized appendage to rescue the infant who was floating down the middle of the river.

Didn’t she realize how far away she was from the basket? How did she know that her arm would grow?

She didn’t.

The Hasidic master, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, imagined: At the precise moment that she decided to act, her arm suddenly grew.

Some things simply depend on will and action.

  • Moses’ sister, Miriam. When Pharaoh’s daughter needed a nursemaid for the infant Moses, Miriam suggested the hiring of …
  • Moses’ birth mother, Yocheved, who nursed Moses as an infant.

These were all very strong women.

But there were two women whom Moses had never met. But, without a doubt, he would have heard stories about them. Without a doubt, those stories inspired him and gave him courage.

I am talking about two of the most extraordinary characters of the Hebrew Bible: Shiphrah and Puah, a pair of midwives in Egypt.

Pharaoh had commanded them to kill all Hebrew infant boys. But they refused to do so.

Shiphrah and Puah were the originators of civil disobedience. They are the first people in the Torah to question and defy authority.

That’s where Moses got it from. That is where contemporary Jewish women could get it from.

The revolution is just beginning.