Proper 28A/Ordinary 33A/Pentecost +22
November 13, 2011
The stereotype of “Old Testament” women conjures up a picture of women who are pious, but weak and submissive to their husbands and fathers. The woman in this week’s Hebrew Bible reading is anything but. Deborah was a Judge in
ancient Israel. Judges were people (mostly men) who were anointed to lead the Israelites in matters both sacred and secular, prior to the reign of King Saul and King David. Judges were often anointed during times of war, when the people needed a leader to guide them to victory. Deborah (pronounced dvora in Hebrew) was the only female Judge in the history of Israel.
The Torah portion concerning Deborah begins with”The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord … ” (Judges 4:1). What was it that was evil in the sight of the Lord? If we go back to Judges, Chapter 3, we see that “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, forgetting the Lord their God, and worshiping the Baals and the Asherahs” (vv.7). So, once again, the thing that made the Lord YHWH smitingly mad was idolatry. As a result of their idolatry, the Lord YHWH abandoned the Israelites to King Jabin of Canaan (a people who worshiped Baal and Asherah) who “oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years” (Judges 4:3).
During this terrible time, Deborah was judging Israel “under the Palm of Deborah” (Judges 4:5) – this woman was well-known enough in Israelite history to have a landmark named after her! Like many women during times of oppression and strife, Deborah stepped up. She spoke to the general of her army, Barak, saying that the Lord YHWH commanded him to take 10,000 troops to Mount Tabor: “‘I [the Lord] will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand’’” (Judges 4:7). Barak, her general, responded, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go” [!!] (vv.8). This woman was so formidable, that even her general would not leave home without her! Keep in mind that this story took place during a time when women were generally expected to be sequestered in the “women’s tents” and would only venture out under the guardianship of their husbands or male relatives.
After the tragedy of 9-11, many American women felt called to “step up”. In fact, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, women are currently the fastest growing group of Veterans. The largest group of women Veterans served during Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn (OEF/OIF/OND), and women make up 13% of all OEF/OIF/OND Veterans (http://www.womenshealth.va.gov/WOMENSHEALTH/facts.asp). Because rockets and roadside bombs do not distinguish between combatants and noncombatants, women have routinely been in the line of fire – in spite of current military regulations banning them from combat.
The documentary “Lioness” (www.lionessthefilm.com) details the story of a group of women Veterans who served in Iraq, and who were included in combat missions – but were never given the credit for doing so. The US military in Ramadi, Iraq was in a very precarious situation where troops were often forced to go door-to-door in urban environments in their efforts to root out Al Qaeda forces. In the process of searching houses and their occupants, the military leadership found that they needed to have women soldiers present, because Islamic Law and Arab culture forbid men from touching women. Having women to conduct searches in women’s quarters – and to talk to and calm the women down – defused a great deal of potentially explosive tension. So – like General Barak – the American military found it could not leave home without the women. Unfortunately, in the process of these searches, the women also came under fire, and as a result, now bear the same scars of war as their male comrades.
In our Torah portion, the Israelites routed the Canaanite forces, and the prophetess and Judge Deborah was memorialized in song as the cause of their victory, “because you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in
Israel” (Judges 5:7). The women in “Lioness” were not memorialized, or even given credit for their role in one of the major battles of Ramadi (although hopefully the documentary will change that fact). We can honor our Veterans (men and women) today by respectfully listening to their stories – without judgment or shock – and by advocating for them. On January 14, 2011, a military advisory panel recommended to do away with the regulation banning women from combat, because women are already in harm’s way, and because – due to senior military leadership requirements for combat experience – the ban unfairly keeps women from claiming experience that they have earned. Hopefully we can celebrate Veterans Day by resolving to do away with this impediment, and by giving the Deborahs among us their full due.