Hats Off To Mary Tyler Moore

On my first trip to Minneapolis 17 years ago, I took a short tour of the city. I saw Fishman’s Deli and Byerlys, and driving around Lake of the Isles, my guide pointed out the Mary Tyler Moore house. I have to be honest and say that I was more taken by the frozen lake. “Who would live here!?” I thought to myself.

The show was a bit before my time. Still, I appreciate Moore’s influence. A feminist icon, she was a trailblazer who helped define a new vision of womanhood at a time when the women’s movement was taking hold. As one critic wrote, Moore’s character in the show “expressed both the exuberance and the melancholy of the single, career woman who could plot her own course.”

Following the massive women’s marches across the United States last month and Mary Tyler Moore’s death, I wonder, who will follow in her footsteps? How will feminism change over the next four years – and beyond? Whether the march will inspire a movement or be just a moment, time will tell. We can, however, look to the past to find an example of women who pushed the boundaries of her day.

Admittedly, at first glance, we might not expect to discover a role model for women the Book of Exodus because women are largely absent. But if we look hard enough, we just might find them. In her insightful study on Exodus, “The Particulars of Rapture,” Aviva Zornberg explains: “Women remain a latent presence in their very absence. They represent the hidden sphere which must remain hidden if it is to do its work with full power.” That is to say, women are intentionally left in the shadows. This position does not diminish the power of women. Just the opposite, Zornberg argues. They need to be hidden and work behind the scenes to fully realize their influence.

So just where are the women of the Torah lurking? We might be tempted to think that women are included and subsumed in this general term “b’nai yisrael/Israelite.” But Zornberg suggests otherwise. She describes an alternative Torah in which women have their own, independent storyline and powerful identity. This story exists on the margins of the Torah text and is only revealed in rabbinic interpretation known as midrash.

For Zornberg, it is specifically when women are hidden that they are powerful. But I wonder at what cost. Since this is not the story we read publically week after week, how does marginalizing the presence of women in the Torah and in Jewish tradition stifle their voice and diminish their influence?

Zornberg’s interpretation reminds me of what Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg once said: “The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage.” It may seem like women plotting in the night but it might just be that they are left in the dark.

And so we are reminded that there is still much work ahead for feminists, which means all of us. Mary Tyler Moore directed America to face issues such as equal pay, birth control, and sexual independence in the 1970s. Sadly, in some ways those issues remain and we would add, family leave, human trafficking and sitting in the oval office. Then there are issues for our Jewish community.

Jamie Halper is a first-year college student who grew up in Beth El Synagogue as a staunch egalitarian, Conservative Jew. At the end of December, Jamie caused a bit of an online uproar in a blog when she asked why there were no women elected to the new, international USY board. Jamie was not challenging the specific results of the election rather drawing attention to a consistent pattern of women being underrepresented in leadership positions. “Without strong female role models and the diversity of perspective that individuals of all genders can bring,” she wrote, Jewish organizations will “fail to reach the broadest audience possible and expand their impact” on the Jewish community.

Jamie’s fight for women rights – for women to wear tefillin and for the imahot (matriarchs) to be included in the Amidah – is part and parcel of battle for equal pay, family leave, and reproductive rights, etc. It is about moving women from the margins to the center, from being overlooked to being counted, from being in the shadow to proudly shining forth. And it begins with powerful role models such as Miriam.

We don’t have to read too far beyond the boarder of the text to see that the midrash was right about Miriam: “chogra v’oz matneha.” She “girds herself in strength.” Penina Adelman, in a book called, “Conversations with Biblical Woman,” explains that “Miriam’s is a spiritual, emotional and psychological strength. It allows her to challenge the powers of her time and to celebrate in the midst of uncertainty.” True, she “never reaches the Promised Land. But she brings song and dance with her on the journey through the wilderness and she bids us to dance the same.”

We must do the same. Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come and acknowledge how far we still have to go. Let us continue the journey and the dance of Miriam, of Moore and of Jamie so that our daughters and our sons will not have to the look to the margins to find female role models, so that they will not have to fight the same fight or march the same march. Rather, they will see women with self-assurance shine a light of wisdom, strength and spirit, a light that “turns the world on with their smile, that takes a nothing day, and suddenly makes it all seem worthwhile.”