Hillel’s voice is back, and she sounds great! (Parashat B’Shalach/Shabbat Shira)

This week I write to you from Jerusalem, inspired by the headline story from this past Tuesday ‘s Ha’aretz. On the first morning of my trip, here is the headline I woke up to: “New Orthodox Rabbinical Group Puts Israeli Women at Its Head – Hopes to Counter Creeping Religious Extremism.” The name of this new organization? Beit Hillel – an appropriate name for an organization that seeks to represent the moderate voice in Judaism.

The new Beit Hillel organization already has 130 member rabbis, all of whom identify with the moderate wing of Israel’s Modern Orthodox/Dati Leumi (Religious Zionist) world. They created Beit Hillel largely in response to the growing extremism within their own religious circles, and those of the Ultra-Orthodox Haredim.

What does the Beit Hillel organization stand for? In their own words: “We believe that the authentic voice of the Torah supports a democracy that includes women in positions of leadership, behaves with respect towards non-Jews, and fosters an openness towards the world. We will work for women’s empowerment, oppose discrimination and racism, support democratic values, and pledge loyalty to the State of Israel, the IDF, the police, and the Israeli courts.”

Beit Hillel’s members find especially disturbing the recent manifestations of discrimination against women.  In fact, as indicated by the headline, Beit Hillel will be the very first Orthodox rabbinical group to include women amongst the ranks of its leadership, with full voting rights in all religious matters. Thirty women, all of whom are considered serious Torah scholars and leaders in the milieu of Torah education for women, are full members of Beit Hillel.

One of the first initiatives of Beit Hillel will be to establish a series of serious Torah study sessions examining the halakhic issues relating to women’s roles in public positions and in the synagogue.

“It can’t be that women—who do everything in every field – have no religious standing,” said Oshra Koren, one of the leaders of a prominent women’s Torah study program (Matan), and a member of Beit Hillel. “Women must be a part of the halakhic discourse,” she said.

In this regard, the timing of Beit Hillel’s launch this week couldn’t be better. This week’s Torah portion – Parashat B’Shalach – features the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, and the beautiful Shirat Ha-Yam (Song at the Sea). It also features a very strong woman.
The figure traditionally associated with the Exodus is Moses, yet the Talmud states: “It is by the merit of the righteous women of that generation that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt” (Talmud, Sotah 11:b).

The leader of that generation’s righteous women was Miriam, Moses’ older sister. Miriam was the only woman in the Torah who had the status of a “neviah” – a prophetess. In this week’s parasha, she is described as “Miriam Ha-Neviah” – “Miriam the Prophetess.” Rashi comments that she attained the status of a prophetess when she foresaw that her mother would give birth to a boy who would lead the Jewish people out of Egyptian bondage. But in addition to her predicting this, when her prophecy actually was fulfilled and the boy was born, she did not sit idly by and say “I told you so” (like most men would!). Instead, like a true leader who takes action, she also took care of the boy…and you know the rest of the story. Without Miriam’s wisdom and foresight—the instinctive and nurturing wisdom of a woman—the exodus would not have been possible.

As the sea closed on Pharaoh’s chariots, Moses leads the Jewish people in a beautiful song of triumph and thanks to God. This song (shira) – the first song ever in the Torah – is a part of our daily prayer service, and its presence in this week’s parasha gives this Shabbat a special name – Shabbat Shira.

But just like the new Beit Hillel organization, the voice of Jewish leadership was not exclusively male. Just as Moses completes his song, the Torah immediately tells us that “Miriam the Prophetess…took a drum in her hand, and all of the women followed her with drums and with dances. Miriam said: Sing unto God, for he is highly praised, the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:20-21).

At the peak of the most miraculous moment in Jewish history, the voices of two prophets – Moses, a man, and Miriam, a woman – were equally heard, both by the Jewish people, and by God.

Interesting, by the way, that the Torah describes Miriam and the women singing and dancing, but does not say anything about Moses or the other men walking out due to immodesty or kol isha, or the men spitting on them or pushing them to the back of the Jewish encampment. I guess the Haredim in Beit Shemesh and Meah Shearim are holier than Moshe Rabbenu.

Related to this week’s parasha is also this week’s haftara (prophetic portion) from the Book of Judges—Chapters 4&5—the longest haftara of the year. Haftarot are typically chosen due to their thematic connection with the parasha. This week’s haftara relates to the parasha in two ways: 1. It tells the story of a female leader, Devorah, who also had the title “Neviah” (prophetess). 2. It records a lengthy song of triumph and praise (similar to the Song at the Sea), sung by Devorah.

Once again, a woman leads our people, and a woman sings…and we don’t see any opposition to this anywhere in the text.

It seems as if the newly founded Beit Hillel is not introducing anything new to Judaism. They are actually restoring the ancient Biblical and Talmudic tradition that equally counted the four matriarchs (Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah), Miriam the Prophetess, Devorah the Prophetess, Esther, Ruth, Bruriah, Rashi’s daughters and many other women, as prominent voices of spiritual and political leadership in the Jewish community.

Welcome, Beit Hillel…or welcome back.  Your courage and vision are re-kindling a light that will illuminate an authentic and true path of Torah for future generations.

Shabbat Shalom

Song of the Torah

Let me the set the scene for you: It’s the final hours of Moses’ life and after five epical books, it’s time to wrap it up; make the quintessential points that will capture the essence and function of the entire Torah. How does Moses do this? With this week’s Torah portion of Haazinu, otherwise known as "Shiras Haazinu." In the Torah scroll, this portion is scribed in lyrical/poetic form, rather than prose.

Although the term shira, song, here refers specifically to the portion of Haazinu, the Talmud tells us that the entire Torah is also essentially a shira. All of Torah can be compared to a song. Why is this? What is it about music?

If I were to visit a lecture hall at UCLA where some professor was lecturing on a complex theme of physics, there isn’t very much he’d say that I’d understand beyond "good morning." Knowing little about the subject, I’d probably find the experience terribly boring and completely meaningless; a total waste of time. Now my older brother, on the other hand, who majored in physics, would take to it like a fish to water. He’d be involved and intrigued.

When we talk about music, on the other hand, music is a different story. Years ago, another older brother of mine once took a course in classical music. As I observed him listening to these various pieces by Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, it was apparent that he was perceiving certain aspects and dimensions within those pieces and movements way beyond anything I was hearing: the pitch, the cadence, the tempo, the integration of instruments.

One day, this brother gave me a gift — a cassette featuring the Israeli Philharmonic playing some of Mozart’s most brilliant concertos. I found the music to be absolutely mesmerizing and played it nonstop. True, I didn’t hear the complex shades and tones, rhythms and harmonies that he did, but I thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed the experience nonetheless. I had little or no understanding of the finer details of musical structure; I still don’t. I wouldn’t know a D-minor from an E-major if it were blasting in my ears through an iPod. I can’t read notes and I can’t play an instrument — although I often wish I could — but I do love listening to good music. While I don’t perceive what the connoisseurs do within musical selections, I can still sing and dance to them with gusto. Indeed, the very same song can mean different things to different people.

In this regard, Torah is much like a shira — a musical masterpiece. To a Torah scholar, every single word contains so many different layers, so many revealed and concealed meanings. Yet, even the less learned can enjoy the beauty and profundity of Torah — on his/her own particular level. The talmudist in the seminary studies the very same passage in Genesis that a 6-year-old studies in first grade. They’re not discovering conflicting or even differing ideas, just different depths of the same idea. That’s the Divine beauty and genius of the Torah’s music. We can all partake with equal gusto, regardless of our level of comprehension.

Another thing about shira is that it arouses passion — an essential ingredient in our service of God. You can stand before the Almighty on the High Holidays and read the words "Avinu Malkeinu — Our Father, Our King, we have no King but You." You can understand and accept it intellectually. Or, you can also sing those very same words to a stirring tune where you not only comprehend it, but you feel it to the core of your soul. You feel the reality of having no king but the Almighty — of worshipping nobody and nothing but Him. The right melody can do that.

Judaism is supposed to be lived and celebrated with joy, passion and enthusiasm. Indeed, among the many great contributions the Baal Shem Tov and the Chasidic movement made to Jewish life, was to enable our people to rediscover these most essential components of Torah observance.

The Prophet Isaiah said: "Let all who are thirsty, go for water," which our sages interpret to mean that whosoever thirsts for truth should drink of the sustaining waters of Torah. Our sages do not choose their metaphors lightly. Quenching one’s thirst is an exercise in refreshment and invigoration. Such must be our pursuit of Torah. Study it with your mind, celebrate it with your heart and internalize it within your soul.

After teaching five exhaustive books and conveying countless volumes of instruction and information, Moses concludes it all with shira so as to underscore that Torah is the birthright and inheritance of every Jew — regardless of level — and that its observance ought to be infused with feeling and passion. It is the music of our lives, the poetry of our aspirations.

Shana Tovah. Chag Sameach!