The midwives’ tale

The Power of Stories Series

Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Pharaoh instructed the Hebrew midwives, “When you assist the Hebrew women during childbirth, if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.”

Fearing God above all, the midwives did not follow Pharaoh’s command but instead let the boys live. When Pharaoh summoned the midwives and asked why, they responded, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” This was the first recorded instance in history of civil disobedience.

Generally described as a non-violent challenge to the law or refusal to obey the law or another authority, civil disobedience encompasses both active protest and passive resistance.

It includes unwillingness to follow the law due to personal moral objections; noncompliance with the law in the belief that it is immoral; and active social protest against certain laws, demands, orders, or commands of a government or established authority considered to be morally wrong or detrimental.

Like the midwives, Moses’ mother, Yocheved, is secretly noncompliant with the law, hiding her infant baby boy instead of throwing him into the Nile.

By contrast, Pharaoh’s daughter publicly disobeys the law by rescuing the Hebrew child, raising him as her own, and denouncing the Pharaoh’s deadly policy by naming the baby Moses, meaning “I drew him out of the water.”

The biblical attitude toward civil disobedience is reinforced in the epilogue to the midwives’ tale.

“And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly. And because the midwives feared God, He established households (descendants) for them.” Commentator and author Dennis Prager notes, “God rarely rewards people so immediately and directly…Perhaps their rewards are cited to show how unequivocally God approved of their behavior.”

In fact, the willingness to challenge and disobey arrogant, unethical, unaccountable power through civil disobedience, both clandestine and in public, has been a theme throughout Jewish history.

But it is Moses who, at the burning bush, raises the most fundamental issue of permissible civil disobedience. “Mi anochi?” Who am I to challenge Pharaoh’s rules? Who am I to act on what I think is moral?

And God answers, “I will be with you — this is your sign that I have sent you…” Student scholar Elena Flack concludes, “This (solves) the problem of the legitimacy of civil disobedience. Moses is not…disobeying Pharaoh’s law because he is following his own moral instincts…he is simply obeying the most absolute law of all, namely that of God.”

The following stories of civil disobedience offer hints about the underlying transcendent values at their core.

The wedding. Threatened by the medieval Church with expulsion, persecution, or death, the vast majority of 500,000 Jews of Spain converted, at least half of whom adopted Christianity outwardly while maintaining their Jewish identity in secret.

Cinfa Cacavi, a housewife and mother living in Zaragossa, recalls her clandestine spring wedding.

“Three days before my wedding I took my bride’s bath. I purified myself at the mikvah. That day, we all met in my father’s house, all my family and my sweetheart’s family.

They brought many presents. They filled my house with flowers and brought delicious meats for the meal of that day…The day I got married was the happiest of my life…”

These memories are recorded in her 1482 interrogation file of the Inquisition.

The factory. In 1909, New York City’s shirtwaist factories employed mostly women, unprotected by the male-dominated unions. They worked in unskilled, poorly paid jobs, often in unsafe working conditions, seven days a week for 12 hours a day. After months of unsuccessful spontaneous strikes against individual factories, Clara Shavelson, a fiery 23-year-old strike leader, ignited a general strike of more than 20,000 women, most of whom were Jewish.

“I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions…What we are here to decide is whether we shall or shall not strike.”

Eleven weeks later, the strikers had won. The uprising sparked five years of revolt that transformed the garment industry into one of the best-organized trades in the United States.

The festival. The Soviet Union’s early 20th century policy of encouraging Jewish assimilation into Russian culture and society was implemented by the liquidation of Yiddish schools, publication houses, research institutes, and theatres; the closing of more than 5,000 synagogues; and the targeting of groups fostering Jewish nationalism and Zionist ideologies. When Israel’s minister to Moscow, Golda Meir, approached Joseph Stalin in 1948 about the emigration of Soviet Jews to Israel, he responded that they were extremely happy and didn’t need any Promised Land.

Yet a Jewish exodus was already underway, despite the threats of harassment, loss of jobs, and becoming stranded in Russia as a refusenik. Most inspiring were the annual celebrations of Simchat Torah in front of Soviet synagogues where, for years, tens of thousands of Russian Jews would sing Hebrew and Jewish songs and dance well into the night.

“He who has not witnessed Simchat Torah in Moscow,” Elie Wiesel wrote, “has never in his life witnessed joy. Had I come to Russia for that alone, it would have been enough.”

In Sefer HaMiddot, a medieval book of character traits or virtues, we learn that “He who is in a position to protest against an evil and does not protest, nor does he pay any attention to the deeds of the sinners, comes close to flattery, for then the sinners think, ‘As long as they do not protest and do not reproach us, all of our deeds must be good.’”

There is authority and law that should not be obeyed, that should even be publicly protested, because it is objectively immoral. This virtue, we first learn in the midwives’ tale.


Literature to share

Alone Together on Dan Street by Erica Lyons. Based on a true story, this delightfully illustrated children’s book tells how one neighborhood in Jerusalem managed to be together for a Passover Seder during the 2020 Covid shutdown. The abiding importance of celebration, togetherness, creativity, caring, and more comes to life in this excellent retelling. Wonderful for elementary ages.

Sephardi: Cooking the History. Recipes of the Jews of Spain and the Diaspora, from the 13th Century to Today by Hélène Jawhara Piñer. Winner of the 2021 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards Prize for Best Jewish Cuisine Book, this exceptional volume is a tapestry of Jewish history, geography, culture, and culinary arts of the Jewish people from Spain and the Spanish Diaspora in Morocco, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and South America. A treasure trove for those fascinated by Sephardic history and culture or who simply enjoy making or eating delicious Jewish foods that aren’t difficult to make.

To read the complete April 2023 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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