LONE STAR SIDUR PROJECT: G’ulah

We in the progressive Jewish community tend to think of the section I’m writing about today as two separate prayers. We think about Mi Chamochah and we think about “that long thing before it that we don’t do.” Let me dispense with that and get to today’s meat quickly; there’s nothing objectionable in “that long thing” and no reason not to do it.

My examination of this prayer will center around one contentious line and on a reversal of a previously-held opinion of mine. The last line of “that long thing” is “Mosheh uvnei Yisra’el l’cha anu shira b’simchah rabah, v’amru kulam:,” which means “Moses and the Children of Israel sang a great, joyous song, saying together:.” The line introduces Mi Chamochah, which is a selection from the song of the sea.

Many in the world of progressive liturgy have suggested (beginning with the Reconstructionist sidur, Kol Haneshamah) that the line might instead be rendered, “Moshe uMiryam uvnei Yisrael, etc.” Previously, it was opinion that this line was a bad thing. In this post I will endeavor to reverse my opinion and in fact prove myself wrong.

A good friend and a litrugical mentor of mine (if he wants to be identified, he’ll let us know in the comments) suggested that this alteration of the line was problematic because the line is a biblical quote and it is improper to mess with a biblical quote. With that in mind, I crusaded against this mention of Miryam, claiming that it was improper to mess with lines from Torah for reasons of political correctness.

I later learned of a particular line in Yotzer Or, which is an altered biblical quote and has been so altered, seemingly from Sinai (don’t think too hard about that hyperbole). The quote (from Isaiah, I think) refers to God as creating good and evil. Liturgists living in Babylon, under dualist Zoroastrians, found the statement troubling and changed it to its current form, which refers to a God who creates “hakol,” everything.

Here I was forced to do some thinking about this anti-Miryam crusade of mine. Any casual reader of this blog and my writings here about liturgy will know that I have an obsession with keeping my liturgy consistent. If I accept the change in Yotzer Or, I have to accept the change here in G’ulah. Or, at the very least, I cannot reject the change on this particular basis.

Later, in fact-checking for this post, I discovered that even if Yotzer Or didn’t set the precedent that it does, the claim that the line is a quote to begin with is erroneous. The line that precedes the Song of the Sea in Shmot 15 is “Az yashir Mosheh uvnei Yisra’el et hashirah hazot la’Adonai vayomer leimor:,” meaning “So Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song to Adonai, singing this:.” The meaning and effect may be different, but the lines are completely different. The position that Miryam cannot be added to G’ulah on the basis that it disrupts a line from Torah is thus untenable.

There is a further possible objection, aside from the obvious traditional arguments and anti-feminist hoo-ha. The objection being that the text does not support the idea that Miryam was there with Moses singing. This is also untenable. Why? Midrash. Midrash may not be Torah from Sinai, but it’s often damn close, and it’s still a legit source for Jewish study. In the case of the story of the split sea, many would assume that the oft-repeated story of Nachshon Ben Aminidav (who, the story goes, walked straight into the sea until his head was partially underwater, so strong was his faith that God) actually is Torah from Sinai due to its constant repetition. Likewise, Debbie Friedman’s huge contribution to the world of Progressive Jewish music world cannot be ignored here. Friedman’s “Miriam’s Song” is so well known in the Reform/Progressive world that the song’s placement of Miryam at the center of the singing has nearly become Tanachic fact.

How else do we know that Miryam sang? Because all of “B’nei Yisra’el,” the Children of Israel joined in the singing. Why do I say Children and not the more literal Sons? Because it is nonsense to believe the recently-liberated and currently-overjoyed women would refrain from singing for fear that their kolei ishah might distract the men from the proceedings. Therefore, if everyone sang, Miryam sang.

If you ask “Why not toss Aharon into the mix, too?” I’ll have an aneurism.

I imagine, however, that the intent of the originators of the line was simply to incorporate more female characters into our liturgy, and that too is fine by me.

And so we have now in my sidur:

מֹשֶׁה וּמִרְיָם וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְךָ עָנוּ שִׁירָה בְּשִׂמְחָה רַבָּה, וְאָמְרוּ כֻלָּם

16 Responses to LONE STAR SIDUR PROJECT: G’ulah

  1. The Mentor January 14, 2008 at 9:13 pm #

    I’m happy remaining anonymous, but am honored by the title.

    As for the meat: of course there’s nothing wrong with adding to the liturgy. Inserting ideas into Torah text is the basis of midrash! My objection to adding Miriam into the Song of the Sea is that I’ve yet to be given a good reason why she of all people should be specifically added into the text. Why not Aaron? Why not Nachshon? Why not everyone we know by name?

    The conclusion I come to, time and time again, is that she should be added to, in such words or other, make women feel good. Sorry, I don’t buy that.

    Give me a reason, and I’ll consider it. But I’m in the business of making meaning and finding truth, not making people feel good for its own sake.

  2. davidamwilensky January 14, 2008 at 10:32 pm #

    Do you say the mamas in Avot?

  3. Elf's DH January 15, 2008 at 8:19 am #

    The reason this is a particularly bad change is not that it’s a change in Biblical text (which as you point out happens), and not that Miriam didn’t sing at all (because she did), but that Miriam didn’t sing “mi chamocha!” Look at the Biblical text. “Moses and the children of Israel” sang “Ashira L’Hashem Ki Gaoh Ga’ah” which includes “mi chamocha.” In the line following that (long) song, we see Miriam and the women singing and dancing. Their words are “Shiru L’Hashem Ki Gaoh Ga’ah…” but only one line.

  4. Elf's DH January 15, 2008 at 8:55 am #

    ps — the difference is that Miriam had musical accompaniment, but Moses didn’t. (Dancing is not specifically in there, just assumed it, but I guess if I’m being a literalist, I shouldn’t assume anything).

  5. davidamwilensky January 15, 2008 at 9:57 am #

    I’m trying to picture this in realistic terms. What would this look like if really happened? is my line of thinking.

    We have twelve distinct tribes nubmering in the thousands marching out of Goshen, right? How is it possible the the men spontaneously break out into a particular song, then they stop, then the women from these twelve distinct groups spontaneously congregate and sing and dance, but they only sing one line?

    Clearly this story is not telling us the entire story. There must be more detail going on in the story that the author (another issue for another time) didn’t deem necessary to include.

  6. Elf's DH January 15, 2008 at 11:49 am #

    On the other hand, the author did choose to include the reference to Miriam, the women and her song.

    Try to think about this without imposing modern egalitarian cultural norms. The story basically treats women like baggage that men carry around. They’re not counted as part of the community. And, sometimes when God gives commands, He gives them to the men only (eg, ‘do not approach women’ before the revelation). It’s the menfolk who view themselves as the ones who were saved, so Moses starts his song, and, according to the cultural norms of the time, the men repeat. Then (or perhaps simultaneously?), the women assert themselves as part of the saved community and begin a song. Similar to the mens’ song, but shorter, phrased in the plural form(!), and with music.

  7. davidamwilensky January 15, 2008 at 2:06 pm #

    Perhaps. Even if that is the case, I’m only trying to reframe the story, as Jews have done throughout history, in a way that I can wrap my head around,

  8. elfsdh January 15, 2008 at 4:57 pm #

    I’m primarily pointing out that you’re relying on Midrash (in your post) to prove the wrong point. There is no need to rely on Midrash to prove that Miriam sang a song at the sea, nor that she was at the center of it (she was leading approximately half of the Israelites!). It’s in the text. The most fundamentalist Bible-reader would agree with it. The question is whether it stretches accuracy to add “משה ומרים ובני ישראל…מי כמוך” just for the sake of adding a woman’s name wherever there is a man’s.

  9. davidamwilensky January 16, 2008 at 12:17 am #

    Not for the sake of adding a woman’s name where there is a man’s. I have not done that. If I were engaging in a systematic attempt to do that, I would do it. Everywhere. And I don’t.

    There are things that I change systematically, but they are absolute and systematic.

  10. elfsdh January 16, 2008 at 12:36 pm #

    1. I stand corrected. I had thought you were attempting to extend Policy IIA into Moses/Miriam.

    2. The change biblical text for Yotzer Or is not completely out of left field. The whole verse (Isaiah 45:7) is: “יוצר אור ובורא חשך עשה שלום ובורא רע אני ד’ עשה כל־אלה”

    Another significant change is that the Babylonian version (read: the one we use today) of the Avot in the Amidah reads: “וקונה הכל” which does not appear in Biblical text. What does is the Palestinian version — “קונה שמים וארץ” which is recognizable from the short Avot section preceding Magen Avot.

    I guess the difference between the change you’re proposing/defending and the others is that the others don’t change Biblical content. This one does.

  11. davidamwilensky January 16, 2008 at 1:12 pm #

    Well played. I’m glad I know that somebody reads this stuff thoroughly enough to care about how this all works in my head and read all the backgroud.

    A midrash isn’t changed biblical content. It’s proposed aditional content created to make a point.

  12. elfsdh January 17, 2008 at 12:01 pm #

    A midrash isn’t changed biblical content. It’s proposed aditional content created to make a point.

    The Midrashic method assumes that there are no extra words in the text, and that the text is terse, so additional detail is required to make it make sense. Your midrash proposes an additional question – what do Ex 15:20-21 mean?

  13. Frume Sarah February 3, 2008 at 5:35 pm #

    At the risk of being flamed, I don’t put Miriam there because as a woman, I never really noticed that she wasn’t there. When it says “bnai Yisrael,” I’ve always understood it to mean “all the Children of Israel” which would include Miriam.

    Miriam simply does not hold a position equal to Moses. Nor does Aaron. Parashat B’haalotcha is a strong reminder of this. And that is OK. She had an important role but I don’t think that she needs to be inserted all over the place (G’ulah, Havdallah, Pesach seder) in order to prove that.

    And, for the record, I add the matriarchs while praying publically because it is the minhag hamakom of my shul but not during private prayers!

    A great discussion!!!

  14. David A.M. Wilensky February 3, 2008 at 10:20 pm #

    Interesting points. To be honest, I agree that she’s not on the same level as Mosheh. (If anyone were to disagree, I’d strongly recommend they re-read the damn story.) Regardless, it feels somehow more right to have her there.

    If the intent is that Miryam and the women sang along, why go back and restate it later, after the song is over?

    Where does Miryam appear in Havdalah? Who does that?

  15. David A.M. Wilensky February 3, 2008 at 10:22 pm #

    PS- Frume Sarah, please read the second post I did on this topic. You’ll find something a little different. It is linked to in the comment above yours.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. LONE STAR SIDUR PROJECT: G’ulah part II « - January 28, 2008

    […] As I noted earlier today, I have re-(but not totally)reversed my opinion on Miryam’s place in G’ulah. For the first part of this discussion, go here. […]