January 27, 2018 | 11 Shevat 5778
It is hard to think of the Tanakh (Bible) as a subversive book, but in some sense, it is just that. A quick look at the story of Deborah is an example. Deborah is a leader of the people, not just because she is wise, but in all of the ways that characterized the “shoftim” – judges, who were known for their military prowess as much as for their leadership ability. As a female character in the Tanakh, this is not to be taken for granted.
The Book of Judges follows a basic storyline – the people sin, troubles are brought upon them, whereupon the people cry out to God, and then God sends a charismatic leader to rescue them. In the episode found in our haftarah, the unexpected happens, challenging normative presumptions. The immediate threat to the people comes from the Canaanite king, Javin, and his general Sisera. Deborah is the leader of the people but the normative presumption is that a woman does not lead the people in battle, so she enlists Barak as her general. Barak, however, is reticent to take on the mantle of leadership without Deborah’s immediate backing: “If you will go with me, then I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” (4:8) Deborah’s response is telling: “Very well, I will go with you but (efes) there will be no glory for you in the course that you have taken, for the Lord will give Sisera over into the hands of a woman” (4:9) This “prophetic” statement alludes to an unexpected end to the story since it is expected that the “general” in charge of the battle will reap the fame. And it is not just that Barak will have to share the “fame” for the victory. He will have to share the victory itself since it is another woman, Yael, who would bear responsibility for slaying the enemy general.
A midrash on the unusual word “efes” captures the significance of this turn of events: Rabbi Reuven said: ‘[Read] Efes as a Greek word [meaning ‘let alone’.]’ Said Deborah to him: ‘Do you think that the glory of the song will be passed to you alone?’ He made himself secondary to her, as it says: ‘Then sang Deborah and Barak…’ (5:1) (Bereshit Rabbah 40:4 Theodore Albeck ed. p. 384) This midrash emphasizes a shared sense of power with Barak acknowledging his subservience to Deborah. This is an audacious reading in a male oriented world but seems well warranted by the plot of the story.
The story of Deborah then should be read as a paradigm rather than as a story to be read in a vacuum. The plot was intended to shake things up. It speaks of male-female power sharing, even in defiance of societal norms. Perhaps the Tanakh isn’t as conservative as we often think!
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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