With an open mind

Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.


Sermons and Thoughts

Unmute yourself

30 January 2021
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Sermon Parashat Beshalach

To listen to a recording click here.

“You’re on mute!” – How familiar we have become with that little sentence: the phrase so shaped what we think of 2020 that it even featured in the drone display over London during the New Year’s fireworks. And we are equally familiar with and maybe a little tired of the matching phrase “unmute yourself!”

Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center and one of the central figures in the struggle for women’s rights in Israel as part of her involvement with Women of the Wall, reflected this week on the age of zoom, writing: “Almost every day I hear the host asking a woman to unmute herself. It never fails to move me. … when we witness a woman “unmute” herself, it is a sacred moment.”

In her Dvar Torah, Raphy spoke powerfully about the importance of giving women the opportunity to tell their stories – to find their voices. Raphy in her portion read the story of the rebellion of Korach. The story is normally cited as an example of an dispute not for the sake of heaven. Instead Raphy decided to raise a dispute for the sake of heaven – raising the issue of continued inequality in our society not for selfish reasons but because it is an issue that needs to be addressed to create a fairer society.

Very fittingly, the Torah portion that we would normally have read this morning describes an important crossroad in this regard. While we meet Miriam right at the start of the story of Moses being placed in a basket on the river Nile, it is only in this week’s Torah portion Parashat Beshalach, in Exodus chapter 15 that we learn her name. After the Israelites’ crossing of the Sea of Reeds, they break out in song and we read in verse 20: “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, picked up a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums. And Miriam chanted for them.”

It is at this moment that Miriam truly becomes a character in her own right. She is no longer merely the sister – she is a prophet. Female prophets are few and far between in the Hebrew Bible and so it is not so surprising that the rabbis selected the song of another female prophet, Deborah, as the Haftarah to match our portion. But by doing so the rabbis also made a clear statement about what they felt was the hallmark of this Torah portion. Instead of focusing, for example, on the Manna that first appears in the same portion, the rabbis draw our attention to women finding their voices.

The rabbis’ choice is really rather extraordinary especially because women are continuously marginalised within the biblical narrative. As the American feminist scholar Dr Judith Plaskow highlighted in her important book “Standing Again at Sinai”: “At the central moment of Jewish history; [at the revelation at Sinai], women are invisible. Whether they too stood there trembling in fear and expectation, what they heard when the men heard these words of Moses, we do not know. It was not their experience that interested the chronicler or that informed and shaped the Torah.”

Not only were women marginalised in our textual tradition, they were and often continue to be silenced. The American legal scholar Prof. Catharine MacKinnon analyses in her essay “Only words” the impact of that silencing: “Social inequality is substantially created and enforced—that is, done—through words and images. Social hierarchy cannot and does not exist without being embodied in meanings and expressed in communications.”

As Liberal Jews, committed to egalitarianism, we must therefore rise to the challenge of progressing beyond giving girls the opportunity to become Bat Mitzvah or allowing women to be rabbis. While this generation of young Jewish women, like Raphy, no longer have to be asked to unmute themselves, there is still a long way to go until we have unmuted the many generations of Jewish women that came before us.

In “Beyond Egalitarianism,” Plaskow suggests a number of steps that we should take along the way: She says that we must begin by hearing the silence – Miriam is called a prophet but the words of her prophesy are shrouded in the silence of the biblical text. Having heard the silence, we must then make space to name the silence as Raphy did in her Dvar Torah. For Plaskow this is not just about allowing women to speak but also about challenging historical and structural impediments to women’s speech.

The third stage is creating structures that allow women to speak, like the moderator of a discussion who sees only men raising their hands to ask a question and pauses and says: “I’d like to take the next question from a woman” or the rabbi, who chooses to quote a female commentator rather than turning to the same men that our tradition has turned to for centuries. And finally, women must take the authority to fill the silence. As Plaskow puts it: “Once silence is named and space created, there is nothing to do but to take courage to speak.”

During the past few decades, this is exactly what has happened in the Jewish world. We have seen huge creativity and deep scholarship from women and individuals from other marginalised groups-be it due to their sexuality, gender identity or race. But there is still an important task for us to elevate these voices.

And so, on this day, when a young Jewish woman has found her voice in synagogue, I want to lift up the words of a woman, written before Raphy was even born. It is a commentary on Miriam standing at the sea by Rabbi Ruth H. Sohn, written in 1981:

I, Miriam, stand at the sea
and turn
to face the desert
stretching endless and
My eyes are dazzled
The sky brilliant blue
Sunburnt sands unyielding white.
My hands turn to dove wings.
My arms
for the sky
and I want to sing
the song rising inside me.
My mouth open
I stop.
Where are the words?
Where the melody?
In a moment of panic
My eyes go blind.
Can I take a step
Without knowing a
Will I falter
Will I fall
Will the ground sink away from under me?
The song still unformed–
How can I sing?

To take the first step–
To sing a new song–
Is to close one’s eyes
and dive
into unknown waters.
For a moment knowing nothing risking all–
But then to discover

The waters are friendly
The ground is firm.
And the song–
the song rises again.
Out of my mouth
come words lifting the wind.
And I hear
for the first
the song
that has been in my heart
even to me.