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Women in Jewish Literature

Among the songs of the Bible there are two, belonging to the oldest monuments of poetry, which have preserved the power to inspire and elevate as when they were first uttered: the hymn of praise and thanksgiving sung by Moses and his sister Miriam, and the impassioned song of Deborah, the heroine in Israel.

Miriam and Deborah are the first Israelite women whose melody thrilled and even now thrills us-Miriam, the inspired prophetess, pouring forth her people’s joy and sorrow, and Deborah. The Bible calls her, “the woman of the flaming heart,” an old writer ingeniously interprets the Scriptural name. They are the chosen exemplars of all women who, stepping across the narrow confines of home, have lifted up a voice, or wielded a pen, for Israel. The time is not yet when woman in literature can be discussed without an introductory justification.

The prejudice is still deep-rooted which insists that domestic activity is woman’s only legitimate career, that to enter the literary arena is unwomanly, that inspired songs may drop only from male lips. Woman’s heart should, indeed, be the abode of the angels of gentleness, modesty, kindness, and patience. But no contradiction is involved in the belief that her mind is endowed with force and ability on occasion to grasp the spokes of fortune’s wheel, or produce works which need not shrink from public criticism. Deborah herself felt that it would have better become a man to fulfill the mission with which she was charged-that a cozy home had been a more seemly place for her than the camp upon Mount Tabor.

She says: “Desolate were the open towns in Israel, they were desolate…. Was there a shield seen or a spear among forty thousand in Israel?… I-unto the Lord will I sing.” Not until the fields of Israel were desert, forsaken of able-bodied men, did the woman Deborah arise for the glory of God. She refused to pose as a heroine, rejected the crown of victory, nor coveted the poet’s laurel, meet recognition of her triumphal song. Modestly she chose the simplest yet most beautiful of names. She summoned the warriors to battle; the word of God was proclaimed by her lips; she pronounced judgment, and right prevailed; her courage sustained her on the battlefield, and victory followed in her footsteps-yet neither judge, nor poetess, nor singer, nor prophetess will she call herself, but only Em beyisrael, “a mother in Israel.”

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