Biblical Rebels Retain Relevance Today
April 23, 2013
Melissa Jacobs, the Jewish Exponent
Obey. Rebel. These two central — and conflicting — messages of the Five Books Of Moses are embedded in the Ten Commandments, 613 mitzvot and dozens of stories of Jews who flaunted authority and, in some cases, wrestled with God. Is there something in the fabric of Jewish tradition that instills rambunctiousness in its people?
There’s no denying that Jews come from a long line of rebels, troublemakers and rabble-rousers. Had David not vanquished Israel’s enemies, had Moses not led the Hebrews out of slavery, had Abraham not rebelled against his father, the majority of the world’s population might still be polytheistic idol worshippers. But while those men are held as heroes, several rabbis say that the original biblical rebels are women.
“They lived as minorities in two ways: They were Jews in a non-Jewish world and they were women in a paternalistic society,” explains Rabbi Michael Knopf, assistant rabbi at Temple Har Zion in Penn Valley. “They had to act against men, Jewish and not, to get anything done.”
And they did plenty. “Sarah sees the corrupting influence that Hagar and Ishmael have on Abraham and the future of the Jewish people, so she rebels against her husband’s wishes and insists that they be cast out,” Knopf says. “Rebecca also goes against her husband. She knows that Isaac wants to give the blessing to Esau, but she believes that it should go to Jacob, so she intervenes to make that happen. Rachel hides her father’s idols as an act of rebellion and possibly revenge for tricking Jacob and delaying their marriage.
“But my favorite rebels are the midwives of the Exodus,” Knopf says. “They are enslaved and have no reason to hope for a better future — and know that they could be beaten or executed for what they do — but they still choose to disobey the command to kill Jewish babies. Moses’ sister, Miriam, and his mother are among those women who find the strength within themselves to defy the Egyptians. They don’t know how the story of the Exodus will end. When they make that act of rebellion, they have nothing to personally gain and everything to risk if they are caught. They — and a long line of Jewish women — rebel against authority to make sure that what’s right is what happens. And Judaism regards these women in a very positive light, which in and of itself is unique for a religion.”
Rabbi Roni Handler couldn’t agree more. She is the director of community learning at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and editor of its RitualWell website (www.ritualwell.org ), which offers female-centric insights on Judaism. “I think about Sarah, Rebecca, Miriam and others as strong, confident women who asserted their place in society in a time in which that wasn’t often done,” she says. “More than that, they did it to save their people. The lesson in that, I believe, is to disrupt things when necessary. Women and men did that in ways both grand and small.”
One of Handler’s favorite examples is Esther. “When she is enlisted to save her people, she does so through active rebellion against Haman, at great physical risk to herself,” Handler says. “On the flip side, I see Vashti as a rebellious hero, because she did not take orders in the way they were handed to her. She did not put up with what could be seen as abusive behavior.”
Conspiring is one form of rebellion, but there were biblical women who were actively violent. Handler names Judith and Yael, both of whom assassinated military chiefs who were fighting against the Jews. “And that is not in self-defense or to wage war to gain territory,” Knopf clarifies. “Those are acts of almost guerilla sabotage for a greater good.”
Fighting for that greater good is one of the modern takeaways of these biblical stories, says Rabbi Benjamin David of Congregation Emanuel in Mt. Laurel. “To me, it’s all about social justice,” he states. “Because we are taught from Minute One that our forefathers and foremothers had to fight for their Judaism against the mainstream majority, I think that our religious tradition makes us really comfortable with being rebels for a cause — as long as it is the right cause. That cause isn’t always a specifically Jewish one — we stand up and fight for those who are being persecuted.”
“There is something in our tradition that teaches us that it is our duty to save not just our Jewish people, but the non-Jews in the world,” Handler says. “And I don’t mean ‘saved’ religiously, as in saving someone’s soul. I mean, saving someone’s life, their rights, their dignity and all of that. I believe that one of the messages of these ancient stories is to be good, responsible citizens of whatever society you live in, in whatever time period.”
“We are taught to do the right thing — even when it is not the popular thing,” David states. “In today’s world, I relate that to the fight for marriage equality and the fight for gun control. We Jews are in the forefront of helping people in other countries, like Darfur in Sudan. I believe that we do that — and feel a deep responsibility to do it — because there have been times in history in which Jews did not have the power to help anyone, including ourselves, and no one helped us. Not enough people rebelled against the Nazis. Not enough people rebelled against governments and organizations that persecuted Jews again and again. We are reminded of this every year at Passover, when we tell the story of the Hebrews’ enslavement and of our liberation. It is written into our seders and Haggadot that we — each one of us — must rebel against persecution wherever we see it. It is our duty, as Jews, to God.”
While global rebellions are important, so are those that are internal, Knopf says. “Sometimes, we have to rebel against our base instincts and desires in order to do that right thing,” he explains. “Fighting against a government or social cause is one thing. Fighting against yourself is just as difficult.”
When is it right to obey and when to rebel? “I believe it is a matter of learning not just Jewish laws, but Jewish values,” Knopf answers. “Those values are our North Stars. We protect them and abide by them, but if we feel that something goes against those values, we must act.”
Those Ten Commandments and 613 mitzvot outline those Jewish values and are not simply about obedience. The stories of the Torah, the rabbis agree, are examples of people struggling to uphold those values in themselves and the world. That struggle begins in the beginning, with Adam and Eve. “To me, that story is less about punishment and more about being really, really sure that you are doing the right thing before you take action,” David says. “And don’t hide from it, like Adam and Eve did. Stand up for what you believe in and take responsibility for your actions. If you are going to rebel, do it right.”