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.’
“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.