Photo Credit: Rabbi Sacks
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The opening chapter of Shemot contains an episode that properly deserves a place of honor in the history of morality. Pharaoh has decided on a plan of slow genocide. He tells the midwives, Shifra and Puah, to kill any male Israelite child. We then read the following:

“The midwives feared G-d and did not do what the Egyptian king had commanded. They allowed the infant boys to live. The king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why did you do this? You let the boys live.’

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“The midwives replied, ‘The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptians. They know how to deliver. They can give birth even before a midwife gets to them.’ G-d was good to the midwives, and the people increased and became very numerous. Because the midwives feared G-d, He made them houses [of their own].”

Who were Shifra and Puah? Midrashic tradition identifies them with Yocheved and Miriam. However, in describing them the Torah uses an ambiguous phrase, “hameyaldot ha’ivriyot,” which could mean either “the Hebrew midwives” or “the midwives to the Hebrews.” On the second interpretation, they may not have been Hebrews at all – but Egyptians. This is the view taken by Abrabanel and Samuel David Luzzatto. Luzzatto’s reasoning is simple: could Pharaoh realistically have expected Hebrew women to murder their own people’s children?

The Torah’s ambiguity on this point is deliberate. We do not know to which people they belonged because their particular form of moral courage transcends nationality and race. In essence, they were being asked to commit a “crime against humanity,” and they refused to do so. Theirs is a story that deserves to be set in its full historical perspective.

One of the landmarks of modern international law was the judgment against Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg trials of 1946. This established that there are certain crimes in relation to which the claim that “I was obeying orders” is no defense. There are moral laws higher than those of the state. “Crimes against humanity” remain crimes, whatever the law of the land or the orders of a government. There are instructions one is morally bound to disobey, times when civil disobedience is the necessary response.

This principle, attributed to the American writer Henry David Thoreau in 1848, inspired many of those who fought for the abolition of slavery in the United States, as well as the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his struggle for black civil rights in the 1960s. At stake in the principle of civil disobedience is a theory of the moral limits of the state.

Until modern times rulers had absolute authority, tempered only by the concessions they had to make to other powerful groups. It was not until the 17th century that figures like John Locke began to develop theories of liberty, social contract and human rights. Most religious thought until then was dedicated to justifying existing structures of power. That was the function of myth, and later the concept of the “divine right of kings.” In such societies, the idea that there might be moral limits to power is unthinkable. To challenge the king was to defy reality itself.

Biblical monotheism was a revolution thousands of years ahead of its time. The exodus was more than the liberation of slaves. It was a redrawing of the moral landscape. If the image of G-d is to be found, not only in kings but also in the human person as such, then all power that dehumanizes is ipso facto an abuse of power. Slavery, seen by almost all ancient thinkers as part of the natural order, is for the first time called into question. To be sure, the Torah permits it. (It was not banned in Britain and America until the 19th century, and even then not without – in America – a civil war.) But, by restricting it in many ways, i.e. Shabbat, release after seven years, it prepared the way for its eventual abolition.

When G-d tells Moses to say to Pharaoh, “My son, my firstborn, Israel,” He is announcing to the most powerful ruler of the ancient world that these people may be your slaves but they are My children. The story of the Exodus is as much political as theological. Theologically, the plagues showed that the Creator of nature is supreme over the forces of nature. Politically it declared that over every human power stands the sovereignty of G-d, defender and guarantor of the rights of mankind.

In such a worldview, the idea of civil disobedience is not unthinkable but self-evident. The very notion of authority is defined by the transcendence of right over might, morality over power. In one of history’s world-changing moments, social criticism was born in Israel simultaneously with institutionalization of power. No sooner were there kings in Israel, than there were prophets mandated by G-d to criticize them when they abused their power. As the Talmud puts it: “If there is a conflict between the words of the master and the words of the disciple, whose words should one obey?” No human order overrides the commands of G-d.

How moving it is, therefore, that the first recorded instance of civil disobedience – predating Thoreau by more than three millennia – is the story of Shifra and Puah, two ordinary women defying Pharaoh in the name of simple humanity. All we know about them is that they “feared G-d and did not do what the Egyptian king had commanded.” In those words, a precedent was set that eventually became the basis of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Shifra and Puah, by refusing to obey an immoral order, redefined the moral imagination of the world.

A final note is in order. Though Greek literature does not know of the concept of civil disobedience, it does contain one famous case where an individual defies the king – Sophocles’s Antigone, who buries her brother in defiance of King Creon’s order that he stay unburied as a traitor. The contrast between Sophocles and the Bible is fascinating. Antigone is a tragedy: the eponymous heroine pays for her defiance with her life. The story of Shifra and Puah is not a tragedy. It ends with a curious phrase: G-d “made them houses.”

What does this mean? The Italian commentator Samuel David Luzzatto offered an insightful interpretation. Sometimes women become midwives when they are unable to have children of their own. That, he suggests, was the case with Shifra and Puah. Because they saved children’s lives, G-d rewarded them – measure for measure – with children of their own (“houses” = families). In Judaism the moral life is not inescapably tragic, because neither the universe nor fate is blind. “In reward for the righteous women of that generation, our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt.” Shifra and Puah were two of those women: heroines of the spirit, giants in the story of mankind.

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