The Mixed Multitude We Ignore

I know what I wanted on the second Torah mantel I made. The mountain of Sinai and the words erev rav alah.

The words come from Exodus 12:37-38: “The Israelites journeyed from Raamses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children.  Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them…

By the time I made that Torah mantel, I had served a community that had included Asian Jews, African Jews, Latin Jews, American Jews who had come to the tribe as adults and, of course, a plethora of Ashkenazi Jews. We were a “mixed multitude” of sorts, an eclectic collection of Jews of all kinds. I thought that our Torah mantel should reflect that fact.

I believed that this phrase was true for the tribe as a whole. Each and every course I teach on Jewish history emphasizes how many different kinds of Jews have made Judaisms. I ask my students to learn about Jewish communities of Africa and Asia, among others. I ask them to consider communities which counted descent patrilinealy (like Tanakh does!) rather than matrilinealy (as European Judaism does). I ask them to at least try to assess the evidence we have that Jewish women studied Torah and led congregations prior to the rabbinic period. And, this might surprise: there are select examples of medieval women working as cantors and mohels, among other things, during the heydey of the rabbinic period. We shouldn’t ignore that fact, either.

I try to find the histories of those Jews whose stories have been erased and marginalized. Where are Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews, women? How can I extract, discover, include those who are so often left out?

Consider: The rabbis suggest Mordechai nursed Esther. An amulet from the Cairo Genizah includes a spell to ensure love between two men.  There is homoerotic poetry from medieval Spain. (For a collection of Queer Jewish texts, see A Rainbow Thread, by Noam Sienna.)

I want American Jewish communities to ask what they could do to acknowledge the contributions of Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews to Jewish history. How many congregations in the U.S have ever heard Baghdadi trope or Iraqi traditional melodies? It’s not that hard to introduce either – you just have to look, learn, and transmit what you find.

The task of making it possible for us to hear lost voices has really only just begun. Even in a realm where we think we have accomplished so much – understanding and honoring the role of Jewish women in our history, we are woefully behind.

A couple of years ago I purchased what purported to be the most comprehensive and up-to-date history of Hasidism possible.  Hasidism: A New History was edited by David Biale and featured the work of eight foremost scholars in the field. All male.

“The volume,” Susannah Heschel and Sarah Imhoff, two noted female Jewish historians, recently remarked, “ignores the women who help finance the Hasidic movement, either with cash, property or their own labor. Changes in women’s religious practice, the role of their piety, differences in Hasidic marriages and relations between husbands and wives, interactions between women and the rebbes they consult, even the tremendous Hasidic concern with sexuality – there are so many gender-related topics central to Hasidism that were ignored by the volume’s authors…”

If this book were an outlier, we could at least comfort ourselves with that fact. But as Heschel and Imhoff note, collective work and anthologies generally include few female authors and/or pay little attention to gender concerns. Despite the gains of First Wave Feminism, despite pivotal books like Standing at Sinai (1990), we continue to live in a world which silences Jewish women and dismisses their contributions. 

We read Parsha Bo this week. We will tell ourselves that a mixed multitude went up to Sinai.

We must do the work of taking that statement seriously.

Thanks to ALEPH Rabbinic Students Cat Zavis and Lex Rofeberg for contributing to my ongoing quest to find the sources I long to teach.


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