Jewfem Blog

What if Moses were a woman? Here's what would happen

​The following post on the Torah portion was solicited by a Jewish newspaper that then refused to publish it on the grounds that, "Your essay needs to be about the parsha." The post was exactly my thoughts after reading the first section of Parshat Va'era, and cites those sections. The reason it wasn't "about the parsha" in my understanding is that it didn't make people worship the Torah more but rather made people question aspects of our Jewish culture. Note to self: if you want to be published, be cheery. 

When Jews seek out biblical inspiration on the issue of leadership, we often read this week's Torah portion, Va'era, in which our penultimate trailblazer, Moses, receives his appointment to lead the Big Exodus Project.

The ensuing discussions about leadership tend to offer theories of Moses' specialness. It could be his perceived qualities of outsider-underdog who finds his rightful place on the mountain with God. Or his posture as the imperfect one with a physical or verbal impediment who managed to become the great communicator. Sometimes we discuss a quality God called 'humility' that is sometimes foggy but sounds like a nice thing. It may be Moses' outstanding origin story, the adoptee with a secret identity living in the palace amid a backdrop of violent infanticide led by his adopted grandfather whom he completely turned against as he reconnected with his people. His emergences as the quintessential Israelite was so spectacular as to inspire generations of Jews and a few major motion pictures with his unlikely and against-all-odds victory for freedom versus oppression.

I can understand why it's so powerful. Moses led one of the most incredible events in Jewish and world culture, and his entry into leadership has some brilliant drama and tenacity, enough to sustain 3000 years of story-telling. That's impressive.

However, rereading the portion after spending nearly 30 years working in the Jewish community, I can't help but wonder how Moses would have fared in the world today. In particular, I wonder what would have happened if Moses were a woman.

Unfortunately, I know the answer, and it isn't pretty.

There are at least three aspects of this week's narrative where Moses would have been completely demolished had he been a woman.

The first thing Moses did that would have killed a woman's shot at the top job was when he admitted to God that the people are not listening to him. In Exodus 6;12, we read "Moses spoke before the Lord, saying, 'Behold, the children of Israel did not hearken to me. How then will Pharaoh hearken to me?' " That is such a big no-no for women. As it is, the world sees our faults with magnifying glasses, and we cannot afford to help that process along. Men are more likely to get jobs that women are equally qualified for. One of the many lingering lessons from the Trump experience is that it may take only the slightest perception of a flaw to make a woman seem unqualified, even when competing against a man with zero qualifications and serious personality issues. The last thing a woman can afford to do is admit failure or say that she is unsure about whether she can handle the job. She would be out on her behind in seconds.

The second mistake that a woman would have been crucified for was saying that she doesn't want to speak, the way Moses did. In the continuation of that verse, he said, "I am of broken lips", arel s'fatayim, which has been interpreted in many different ways, and likely refers to a speech impediment or stutter. We know how hard it is for women to get speaking gigs in the Jewish community. There have been several initiatives to combat this phenomenon, to phase out "manels" and other places where women are not seen as speakers. Women have to fight tooth and nail to get prestigious speaking jobs. A woman who says she cannot do it will not likely get a second chance at it.

The third thing that Moses did that would get a woman written entirely out of history was giving up the position to someone else. As soon as God offered Moses the opportunity to let his brother Aaron be the front-man, Moses eagerly accepted. If that were to happen in real life, Aaron would be the one we talk about for centuries. The woman behind the scenes would have been forgotten. We have ample evidence that this is what actually happened throughout history. Whether with great artists such as Shakespeare and Beethoven, or community leaders like Rabbi Meir and Rashi, we are still discovering how many great women were the real brains behind the men who got all the credit. The woman who writes the texts that men say publicly gets zero glory. We would likely never know her name.

The truth is, the reason why Moses got his job is because God liked him. We don't actually know why. We have stories of Moses slaying the Egyptian who was going to hurt an Israelite, and of letting an Israelite live for doing the exact same thing. What does it mean that this was what God was looking for in a leader? That loyalty matters? That sometimes killing is okay and sometimes it isn't? That he was dedicated to Israelites even though he did not know he was one? We don't know. All we know is that God chose him, so he got the job even when he didn't necessarily want it or have the necessary skills.

I've seen this same dynamic often, where the (male) protégé of the (male) boss gets a job even though he isn't qualified and there were women working hard and waiting for the position. Twice I have left workplaces after that happened. Once, my male boss took the curriculum that I had wrote for a course on gender in education – the topic of my dissertation and award-winning book on the topic – and told me he was teaching the course himself. I'm just saying. This happens to women regularly. The God-Moses boys' club is still alive and kicking.

This understanding that the Jewish community has two different sets of standards for evaluating leaders – one for women and one for men – is as infuriating as it is tragic. It is deeply upsetting to see incredibly qualified women passed over for important positions, spoken over at meetings, disregarded for their expertise, not taken seriously for reasons that have only to do with unconscious bias about what a leader "looks like". But it is also a catastrophe for our community, which loses out on the talents and skills of amazing women who are smart, creative, and forward-thinking, yet systematically overlooked.

If we want to talk about leadership from the Moses story, let's learn the real lesson. People should be evaluated and celebrated for their skills and talents, not for their protected status or assumptions about gender. We need to actively enable women to have opportunities to speak, to be heard, and to lead. 

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