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: