I grew up in Binghamton, NY, and when I was kid, like all kids, we had gym class. Now, I like sports and the school was located across from a park, so we would go play on the fields. Well it didn’t take long for me to figure out that the boys got more time to play than the girls did. We have a societal awareness now that gender is more complex and less binary than male and female, but to my gym teacher, at that time, it was boys and girls. Our school discriminated against girls, despite the fact that Title 9, prohibiting sex discrimination in any educational program or activity, had been passed a decade earlier. I experienced this unequal treatment and said – “That’s not fair!” Fired up with righteous indignation, I led a protest with my best friend until the girls were granted equal time on the fields. So, despite being a pretty quiet and shy kid, I found my voice to cry out against injustice.
In our parshah, Mishpatim, a lot is said about women, but women don’t say anything at all. Some of these issues pertaining to women in Mishpatim include:
- What happens when a man sells his daughter and then the daughter is displeasing to her master
- How to deal with a sorceress (because apparently, sorcery was a women thing)
- What happens when two men are fighting and push a pregnant woman and she miscarries
In the third scenario, notably, the punishment is a fine, not the death penalty as would be fitting for a murder and this verse is often cited to prove that in Judaism life doesn’t begin in the womb. In addition to the this important point, there is another, not so positive message about the status and treatment of women. The primary victim in this scenario is the woman. She is the one who has been caused bodily harm. Yet, she receives nothing. The fine is paid to her husband.
Also in this parshah, we are twice told not to oppress the stranger. The first time it appears, we read:
וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
* People are strange
When you're a stranger
Faces look ugly
When you're alone
When you’re strange…
Faces come the rain….
Well. You know song.
The idea of welcoming a stranger and treating them equally is an important value, so important that some version of this commandment appears thirty-six times in Torah.
In Biblical times, the word GER / גר , stranger, was understood to mean a foreigner, someone who had migrated from somewhere else. Later, in the rabbinic period, GER / גר took on the meaning of convert. But, in the Bible, a GER / גר is someone who, although they may dwell near, isn’t your people.
Throughout Torah, the value of welcoming the stranger is lifted up. Abraham is known for his extreme hospitality. He and Sarah were open-tent kind of people. Ironically, Abraham casts out Hagar and her son. Not coincidentally, I think, contained within Hagar’s name is GER, stranger.
But people from other places are not the only strangers who live among us. What about people who don’t look like us, or don’t act like us? What about our family members whose actions, attitudes, and politics don’t align with our own? And what about sports teams? My own cousin, despite being born and bred in Central New York, is a Red Sox fan, a difference I have come to know as unreconcilable.
And what about gender?
Judith Plaskow writes about how Jewish women, despite representing half of the population, are “othered,” cut out of the story, and disenfranchised from participating as equals in our tradition.
Somehow, women have been othered into strangeness without the safety of being strangers. In this parshah, we are dealt with, talked about without being allowed to talk, so few of us are even given names. As such we are objectified and made strange.
In this way, we’ve been fighting a long, long, battle of gender apartheid. Here, in the West, we refer to it as the patriarchy, but it’s gender apartheid. Gender apartheid is a term that Western countries like to use to describe the treatment of women in other parts of the world. Now women do have rights here. We’re allowed to dress the way we want, although we may be judged for it. We’re allowed to vote, but no woman has been president. And we are right now in the midst of a troubling trajectory in this country to revoke a women’s agency over her own body—we are objects. We are strange.
* Women seem wicked
When you're unwanted
Streets are uneven
When you're down
When you're strange
Faces come out of the rain
When you're strange
When I was a girl in Binghamton, NY, protesting gym class (I mean we had signs and all the girls in the school joined in), there was a sense of change around me, a sense that women would finally have their day in court. Congress had extended the deadline for states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, guaranteeing equality for all sexes and in my youthful innocence, I couldn’t imagine why states wouldn’t pass it… but they didn’t.
I was crushed. I was other. In this country, my own country, I was the stranger.
It communicated to me and to every girl like me that we weren’t important simply because of our gender. We were Hagar, cast out into the wilderness. We were Miriam, silenced and stricken for questioning Moses. We were the victims of male violence without recourse, or retribution. We were the women in the parshah being spoken about and having decisions made for us, but not having voices ourselves.
Here's the thing. Without Miriam, without Hagar…there is no Torah. Try as the male narrative has tried again and again to silence women. Without women there is no Torah. There is no life.
As Jews, we are compelled to cleave to life, to community, and to gather in all the strangers among us, whether those strangers are from a foreign land, or dwelling in our midst. We must learn to see our strangers not as foreign objects, not as extensions of ourselves, but as ourselves. Then and only then will the world be just.
* People Are Strange - The Doors
Songwriters: Jim Morrison / John Paul Densmore / Robert A Krieger / Raymond D Manzarek