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Rabbi Laura Geller

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10 Jewish Women Every Person Should Know

Posted: 03/19/2012 11:02 am

The Talmud tells us: "We were redeemed from Egypt because of the righteousness of the women of that generation." But it doesn't tell us which women. Which women would it be? Who are the women in the story? The first to be mentioned are Shifra and Puah, the midwives to the Hebrews. These were brave women who defied Pharaoh's orders to kill the Hebrew baby boys. They committed the first recorded act of civil disobedience in human history, risking their own lives to save innocent children. Who were they? The text isn't clear. Were they Hebrew midwives, or midwives to the Hebrews? Maybe they were Egyptian women, defying their king to save human lives.

And then there are other women. The Torah says in Exodus, Chapter 2: "A certain man of the House of Levi went and married a Levite woman. ... She bore a son and hid him for three months..." A certain man? A Levite woman? A sister? The Torah only later tells us their names -- Amram, Yocheved, Miriam -- but what is going on here?

Amram and Yocheved are already married. They have a daughter already; later we learn they have a son Aaron, Moses' big brother. Why does it tell us they got married?

Midrash (rabbinic commentary) fills in the story. Times were tough for the Israelites. Pharaoh had decreed that boys would be killed, so Amram and Yocheved decided not to risk bringing children into that horrible world. They divorced; and because they were leaders, the entire community followed their example. Midrash tells us that Miriam, though still a little girl, challenged her father: "Daddy, you are worse than Pharaoh. He ordered the death of Hebrew boys, but you, what you and Mom are doing leads to the death of girls as well!" Amram was convinced by his wise daughter, so he went and married his wife again -- and so Moses was born.

"She bore a son and hid him for three months ... when she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket, put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance to learn what would happen. Then the daughter of Pharaoh came to bathe in the Nile..."

This daughter of Pharaoh, a wealthy, powerful Egyptian, sees this basket, and hears a baby crying. She knows it's a Hebrew baby, the Torah tells us explicitly. Still, she reaches for the basket and rescues the baby. She reaches over race and class and religion, defying her own father to save a human life.

The rabbis play with an ambiguous word here: amatah. Pharaoh's daughter saw the basket "V tishlach et amatah" -- literally, "and she sent her maid servant to get it." But amatah can also mean "arm," leading the rabbis to describe that Pharaoh's daughter stretched out her arm, and it became long enough to rescue the baby. They learn from this that our arms are always long enough to reach out to another human being.

And then Miriam approaches the daughter of Pharaoh. "You need a wet nurse for that baby? I know just the woman!" So Miriam brings Yocheved to nurse her own son.

Does Pharaoh' daughter know that Miriam is the sister? That the nurse is the mother? Is this a conspiracy of women working together, quietly, powerfully, to change human history because they see the face of God in each other and in this baby?

We were redeemed from Egypt because of the righteousness of the women.

These women, and the others, didn't despair, no matter how harsh the conditions of slavery were. Our midrash tells us that these women went into the fields where their husbands were slave laborers -- exhausted, wasted, almost dead -- and took them to the apple trees, brought them food and used mirrors to make themselves beautiful to arouse their husbands so life could go on and new generations would be born. Those mirrors became part of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary, because without them, and the courage of the women, we wouldn't be here today.

We were redeemed because of the righteousness of the women: Shifra, Puah, Miriam, Yocheved, the daughter of Pharaoh, Egyptian women and Hebrew women, and all the other Israelite mothers and wives and sisters and daughters who never lost hope.

The spirit of those women in the generation of the Exodus from Egypt has been the spirit of Jewish women throughout the generations, women who never gave up hope that they could make the world better for their children and their children's children and for all the children of the world. We celebrate that legacy during Women's History Month as we begin to prepare for Passover.

In the spirit of Women's History Month, here is my list of 10 of the most important Jewish women who changed history. The list could be much longer. I stand on the shoulders of these and so many other extraordinary women. Because of their courage and vision, we have all been both redeemed and liberated! To find out more about these women and to discover the rich legacy of Jewish women go to the Jewish Women's Archives.

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  • Beruriah (Second-century Palestine)

    The only woman in the Talmud who is both a teacher and a source of Jewish law.

  • Glückel of Hameln (1645-1724)

    Wrote a memoir of Jewish life in Central Europe covering the second half of the 17th and early 18th Centuries. Her book is an important description of what Jewish life was like at that time.

  • Henrietta Szold (1860-1945)

    Founded Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America and was a founder of Youth Aliyah which located 30,000 children and brought them safely to Palestine. She was a major intellect whose work with Louis Ginsburg on his Legends of the Jews was never acknowledged in her lifetime. She was the first female student at the Jewish Theological Institute, admitted only after she agreed not to seek accreditation for her academic work.

  • Lillian Wald (1867-1940)

    Known as the "Angel of Henry Street" she created the Henry Street Settlement House in New York's Lower East Side. She was a giant in public health and social work.

  • Emma Goldman (1869-1940)

    An anarchist, pacifist and advocate for the rights of workers and of women.

  • Golda Meir (1898-1978)

    Prime Minister of Israel from 1969-1974

  • Rabbi Regina Jonas (1902-1944)

    The first woman rabbi. Ordained at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin in 1935, she was murdered in Auschwitz in October 1944. Her story was essentially unknown until after the fall of the Berlin Wall when East German Archives became available.

  • Betty Friedan (1921-2006)

    Author of the game changing book "The Feminine Mystique" in 1963 which changed the way or culture looks at women and the way women look at themselves. She was a founder of NOW (National Organization of Women) and the National Women's Political Caucus. Her other important books include The Second Stage and Fountain of Age, Betty was a force of nature and I am grateful to acknowledge her as a personal friend and mentor. I really miss her!

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933- )

    The first Jewish woman and only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

  • Barbra Streisand (1942- )

    Perhaps the most famous Jewish entertainer -- not only the top selling female recording artist, but also an actor and director. I was privileged to be one of her teachers and a consultant on the film "Yentl." The moment in the film when Yentl first puts on a <em>tallit</em> still makes me shiver -- Barbra got it so right! I was both moved and impressed to discover how important Jewish tradition and Jewish learning is to her. And I am in awe of the difference she has made in our world through her support of progressive causes. (Photo: Publicity photo of Barbra Streisand from her first television special "My Name is Barbra.")


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