Leaning In to Multiple Identities: From Shifra and Puah, to Matilda Shechter, to the Women of Today

Leaning In to Multiple Identities:  From Shifra and Puah, to Matilda Shechter, to the Women of Today
Sisterhood Shabbat
By Alissa Baum

I’ll never forget an interaction I had with a young woman soon after I finished my course work as a clinical psychologist.  This young woman who happened to be in college approached me at Camp Ramah Darom when we were there one summer:  “Dr. Baum, my name is Shira, it’s so nice to meet you.  I was wondering if you could give me some professional advice as I plan for my future.”  As someone who just achieved a milestone in my professional life, I was so eager to hear this question and offer some sage advice.  “Dr. Baum, how do I marry a rabbi?” 

You all at CSK (Congregation Shaarei Kodesh) know me as Alissa, and I even allow some of you to call me ‘rebetzin’, but beyond the shul walls I actually have several different names.  For most of the day, I am Dr. Baum, a clinical psychologist at the Renfrew Center, an eating disorder treatment center.  At home, my children don’t recognize my doctorate and I’m simply “Imma”. 

In some ways, this might seem confusing - having different names and different identities, not just in one week, but in one day.  This multiple identity is nothing new for men.  Men are never criticized for their different roles, but for some reason, women, throughout history have been looked at through only through a couple of lenses - daughter, mother, wife.  Up until this point in the Torah, until the book of Shemot, this is how women are known - but this week, in Exodus, we are introduced to two powerful women, women whom you may never of heard of, but without these women, we would not be here. 

The women I’m talking about are Shifra and Puah - the Hebrew midwives that are introduced at the beginning of this week’s parashah. 

Who were these women - first off, the text calls them M’yaldot haivriot - Hebrew midwives.  They are given the following order form Phaorah: “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” 
In an act of brave defiance, these midwives refused Pharaoh’s orders to kill the infant boys. 

The question is, were they Hebrews who happened to be midwives, or Egyptian midwives who worked for the Hebrews.  Of course, the commentators give both interpretations.  Some of the commentators say that they must be Egyptian because of what they were commanded to do by Pharoah - to murder all of the Hebrew boys.  But, as we know through history, Jews have sometimes killed other Jews by decree of evil dictators, lest they die as well.  The Midrash gives us a different perspective - not only were they midwives who happened to be Hebrew, but they had other names as well - Miriam and Yocheved. 

Rashi gives the following explanation for how this can be - Shifra is Yocheved - so called because she makes (meshaperet) the child shapely; and Puah is Miriam - so called because she purrs (po’ah), talks and coos to the child, as women do in order to pacify a crying infant. 

Here we see something interesting - we are introduced to two incredibly brave women, who also happened to be the famous Miriam and Yocheved, but they are not introduced to us as Moses’s sister and mother, or Amram’s daughter and wife.   

They are professional midwives - not only that, but they challenge evil and act in righteous ways, saving lives.  Their professions were not just about money - it was about self worth and their own mission for their lives, something which as a mental health professional I relate to very well.

From here, we see that even in the ancient world, women could have different identities, and not only is it ok, not only should they not be looked down upon for it, but they should be praised.

And we also see something interesting as a follow up for their act of civil disobedience:

“And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly. And because the midwives feared God, He established households/Batim for them.” (Exodus 1:20-21)

What does it mean that God established batim, literally homes, for them?  The commentators give various interpretations.  Rashi assumes that these midwives are Yocheved and Miriam, so the ‘houses’ that God establishes for them are the priestly and levitical houses, as Aaron, the high priest is Yocheved’s son, and King David is a descendent of Miriam - in other words - a legacy through their descendents.  Other commentators say that Batim means that God literally gave them nice and safe houses. 

But perhaps we can expand our view of what ‘batim’ could mean for them, and for us. 

The theme for this year in Women’s League is P’ri Yadeha, the fruit of her hands. We live in a time where the fruit of our hands no longer has to be how clean our house is, or the Shabbat dinner we put on the table. It is also the fruits that we grow in our communities and in our careers, the lives we touch as volunteers, teachers, lawyers, therapists, accountants, and the list goes on.

We would not be gathering here this evening if it was not for the work of another amazing woman who went against the grain and made a place for the woman in Judaism that was not just in the kitchen. Matilde Shechter was married to the great Solomon Shechter, who was the Architect of Conservative Judaism. Mathilde Schechter pursued serious interests outside the home. She established a Jewish vocational school for girls on the Lower East Side, which not only prepared young women for the world of work but also helped to strengthen their Jewish identity. The crowning achievement of her public career was the establishment of the Women’s League of the United Synagogue of America (today called the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism). One of the first projects of the Women’s League was the establishment in 1918 of a Student House in the Columbia University area that served as a center for Jewish students as well as for Jewish soldiers and sailors on leave. The concept of a Student House was a true expression of Mathilde Schechter’s values as a caretaking person. It fulfilled an important function as a recreational and cultural center before the existence of the B’nai B’rith Hillel university system. Speaking on Mother’s Day 1919, at Mordecai Kaplan’s Jewish Center in New York, Mathilde Schechter stressed the “absolute unselfishness and utter forgiveness of mother-love,” at the same time emphasizing the needs of mothers to retain a sense of themselves apart from their maternal role.[1]

The Bayit that Shiphra and Puah/Yocheved and Miriam built was a family and a multitude of descendents, but also a legacy of opposing tyranny and acting with righteousness in a dark world.  Mathilde Schechter built a beautiful home for her family, but she also created a legacy through the establishment of Women’s League which is entering its 100th year of existence.  These women redefined the term Bayit - not just a home, but a legacy. 

And this is the reason that I choose to embrace the multitude of identities that I cycle through each day, from Imma and partner, to Doctor, to Rabbi’s wife.  It is not because I think one identity is more valuable over the other but because the fruits that I produce in each of my roles is important and impacts the people around me in different but important ways. So although you may know me as Alissa, I see myself as a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a leader, a healer, a friend, and so many more and I hope that each of you will choose to embrace each of your identities and see the fruit of your hands each day.    


[1] https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/schechter-mathilde


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