WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING
PARASHAT SHEMOT: 2010/5771
THE TYRANNY OF HUMAN RIGHTS
And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives [ha- meyaldot ha-Ivriyot], one named Shifra and the other Puah; and he said: ‘when you birth the Hebrew women, you shall look upon the birth stool. If it be a son, you shall kill him; but if it be a daughter, then shall she live.’ But the midwives feared God, and did not do the king of Egypt’s bidding, but saved the male children alive. (Exodus 1:15-17).
The sages claim that Israel was redeemed from Egypt only on account of their righteous women. Many slaves despaired of the future, deciding not to bring children into a world so cruel, avoiding intimate contact with their wives. Their wives refused to enable this passive collective destruction, enticing their husbands into intimacy and declaring: “the Egyptian king has decreed death to Hebrew male children. Will you exceed his barbarous decree by withholding life from female children as well?” Tradition has it that the couple who were to become the parents of Moses had, themselves, separated until they were persuaded by their daughter Miriam to resume their marital bond. Were it not for the optimism and courage of the righteous Hebrew women, Jews would have been enabled Pharaoh’s solution of his Jewish problem.
Our text is a striking example of Jewish women’s courageous sabotage of Pharaoh’s extermination policy. Indeed, most Jewish commentators assume that the midwives were Hebrew women. Rashbam accepts the rabbinic tradition that Shifra and Puah were nicknames for Miriam and Yocheved. He states explicitly that the meyaldot ha-Ivriyot were Hebrew women. But If this was obvious, why would he bother to say so? Clearly, it is not obvious. The Hebrew phrase meyaldot ha-Ivriyot is ambiguous. It can mean either “the Hebrew midwives” or “the midwives of the Hebrew women.” Accordingly, Rashbam felt constrained to reject the notion that the midwives were not Hebrew women.
There is another valid Jewish interpretation of our text. The Septuagint, Josephus and Abarbanel, among others, assert that the midwives were not Hebrew women. Abarbanel, for example, writes: “How could Pharaoh trust Hebrew women to kill their own newborn? Clearly they were Egyptian women serving as midwives to the Hebrews-that is to say, assisting them with the birth process. Behold those midwives, not withstanding the fact that they were Egyptian, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had ordered. Indeed he rebuked them by saying: ‘why did you do this thing, and save the male children alive?’ “
According to this line of reasoning, the righteous women who facilitated the redemption of the Jewish people included gentiles. Rabbi J. H.Hertz makes the startling observation that the phrase “[they] feared God” is most commonly used to describe the moral sensibilities of gentiles. Long before this, Abraham had pretended that Sarah was his sister, “for I said: there is no fear of God in this place, and they shall kill me [to take] my wife” (Gen. 20:11). Joseph, pretending to be an Egyptian, says to his bothers: “Do this and live. I fear God,” [and shall therefore spare you from death for the crime of espionage]. (Gen. 42:18). The despicable behavior of the Amalekite nation in attacking the weak and the weary Israelite stragglers is because “it did not fear God” (Deut. 25:18).
The notion that individuals would dare oppose the explicit policies of their own totalitarian regime is radical. This act of civil disobedience by the Egyptian midwives is the first recorded instance of active resistance to “crimes against humanity”. It is doubly significant in its historical context. Until very recently, kings were thought to have the divine right to do whatever they pleased. Their authority could not be questioned. Disobedience would inevitably lead to execution.
The innate moral compass of the midwives, based on their intuitive religious convictions, led them to declare that no governing authority can act unethically. Immoral laws must be disobeyed. In a sense, these anonymous, courageous Egyptian women were asserting that the universal human right to liberty and life transcended the rights of kings, and, by extension, all human forms of government. Racial, religious, political and cultural differences were irrelevant. Egyptians could and should protect the humanity and dignity of any beleaguered individual or group.
Centuries before the Nuremburg Trials in 1946 created the international law that paved the way to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, two God fearing Egyptian women had already done so. And to protect those rights, the United Nations created The Human Rights Commission. These righteous gentiles had done far more than participate in the redemption of Israel.
Tragically the pendulum has swung full circle. The protector of citizens of member states has itself become the abusing tyrant. Half of the 2010 Human Rights Commission membership is non democratic. Although Resolution 60/251 of the General Assembly provides that countries should be elected based on their human rights records, 24 out of 47 current members (52%) fail to meet basic standards of democracy and human rights. The Human Rights Commission has turned a blind eye to the world’s worst violations, granting impunity to all of the worst violators except Burma and North Korea. It has taken no action against abuses by China, Cuba, Iran, Laos, Libya, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Zimbabwe-to name some of the world’s twenty greatest abusers.
Not surprisingly, Israel has been condemned more than any other country. Since its creation in 2006 The Human Rights Commission has devoted 27 of its 33 censures to one-sided resolutions against Israel. Professor Christian Tomuschat was placed in charge of the special committee to put into effect the vile findings of the Goldstone Report, another activity of the so-called Human Rights Commission. He was given this responsibility on the basis of his reputation for fairness and lack of bias. Fortunately, the research of the Geneva based UN Watch revealed anything but absence of bias. Inter alia, he penned an essay in 2007 comparing Israel’s actions during the Second Lebanon war to “The barbarism, which was the particular hallmark of WW II”. Tomuschat was Arafat’s legal advisor—hardly testimony to absence of bias. Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz said of this so-called unprejudiced individual: “He has a long history of bigotry towards the Jewish state and of singling out Israel for a double standard”.. Faced with these revelations, Tomuschat was forced to resign. His committee and the Human Relations Committee’s reputation was tarnished internationally.
Nevertheless and notwithstanding, The UN Commission on Human Rights will likely continue to act as the UN’s primary anti-Israel forum, delegitimizing the Jewish state without ever taking note of the war crimes of Hamas, Hezbollah and their agents of terror.
Two anonymous Egyptian women changed the moral landscape of humanity. Sadly, it has changed again.