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Why a crisis needs a woman in charge

  • RabbiGreg
I recently read an article in the Guardian asking, “Are female leaders more successful at managing the coronavirus crisis?” (25 April 2020). The writer looked at the results of countries like New Zealand, Germany, Finland, and Denmark, all governed by female leaders, up against the less exemplary record of some of their male peers – no names named, but I know who you are probably thinking of. Not just in their COVID-19 statistics, but in the way that the messaging has been broadcast – strong and clear, but compassionate, empathetic, and inspirational at the same time, creating a sense of trust in the leadership.
by RABBI GREG ALEXANDER | May 21, 2020

What struck me is that the upcoming festival of Shavuot not only has strong women in the starring role – Naomi and Ruth – but that their story opens, like ours, at a time of crisis. Famine, food shortages, and lack of strong government lead to migrants desperate for work and food. Sound familiar? Only this is more than 3 000 years ago.

Israel was experiencing weak leadership, civil war, and unrest, and food shortages precipitated disaster. Even the name of Naomi’s hometown, Bethlehem, is an ironic play on the literal translation “house of bread” – only there is no bread. Responding to the famine, Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons moved to Moav, a move of sheer desperation given the long hatred between Israel and Moav, where they thought the prospects of getting food and productive work were greater. The text doesn’t tell us how they are received, but we know from today’s world what life was like as a refugee at a time of crisis.

Whatever their reception, within ten years, they experienced social and economic tragedy: the death of all the men, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law without husbands. These three women had to support themselves without the legal and economic rights accorded to men in their society. In short, they had no husbands, no clear title to land, and no resources with which to make a living.

Naomi doesn’t give up, and Ruth courageously makes the famous decision to stand with her – “Thy people shall be my people, and thy G-d, my G-d.” As they negotiate the crisis together, not only do they end up saving their family, but in the long term, the Jewish people as well with Ruth giving birth to Oved, the grandfather of David, who will one day be the king that unites the entire Jewish people.

Now that we mention it, this isn’t the first festival to centre on the story of women who save the Jewish people! Seven weeks ago, we marked Pesach. You might think that was all about Moses, right? Wrong! First, Moses isn’t even mentioned in the Haggadah, while the Exodus wouldn’t have happened without four key women in the story. In fact, Moses wouldn’t exist at all without these women. Let’s start with Pharaoh’s harsh decree to drown every male child. Who resists? The Torah tells us about Shifra and Puah, two midwives, who refuse Pharaoh’s order of genocide and when challenged, don’t hesitate to give a cover story about how the Jewish women give birth too fast for them to get there in time.

Once Moses is born, it’s up to his mother and sister to keep him alive, and they manage the whole thing smoothly from the moment he is laid in the basket in the bulrushes. Miriam watches him float safely downstream to be noticed by Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopts him and raises him under the care and wet nursing of Moses’ mother herself. A plan hatched and enacted by Miriam.

These powerful women set up the entire Exodus story to come. Without them, we would still be slaves in Egypt.

Go back another month, and we get to Purim, another Megillah, and another heroine who saves the Jewish people. Esther, the queen, who must defy convention and approach the king with her request to save the Jews, and in so doing, avoids the genocide planned by the vicious advisor, Haman. But the story is no “happily ever after” tale. It leaves us with a feeling of unease that this king can have so much power and so little accountability. Monday it was going to be the Jews, Tuesday it was Haman and his family. What’s to stop Wednesday being the Jews again? It’s a cautionary tale about Jews living under governments that aren’t democratic, stable, or just, and how precarious a citizen of any race or religion is in such states.

So, we have Ruth and Naomi doing their best to survive in a time of famine, starvation, and migration, where the rules are made by the men around them, even as they die and fall out of the story. We have Shifra and Puah, Miriam and Yocheved, negotiating the brutal oppression of a tyrant set on destroying the slaves that work for him. Even Pharaoh’s daughter can’t oppose her father, raising the child secretly within his court. With no resort to a constitution or impartial legal system, they all find the best way to manipulate the situation to save lives and bring hope to the oppressed. And, Esther works “within the palace of the king” to bring salvation to her people outside, all the time knowing that she hasn’t changed the status quo, only managed to buy some time and relief.

None of these women has any formal power. None of them can really change the political or economic realities of the countries they live in at first. They are themselves vulnerable, and yet rise to be heroines who save their families and ultimately the Jewish people.

As we reel from this pandemic and the impact it’s having on our welfare and economic systems, do our sacred texts suggest to us that women need to be part of the solution? If our biblical matriarchs could do so much without any real power, imagine what they could have done as appointed leaders? Imagine, furthermore, if all our leaders, regardless of gender, displayed those values. What is clear to me from the Guardian article is that the style of leadership that has most benefitted those countries is one that is strong, decisive, and capable of displaying feeling. These are qualities that we see in our biblical heroines, and ones we would want to look for in our leaders to guide us through our current crisis.

Rabbi Greg Alexander is a proudly feminist leader of the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation.

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