Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Getting To Know The Mother Of Moses - Rabbi Susan E. Lippe

This is the ninth piece in the Interfaith Ramadan 2016 series. Articles written by contributors from diverse faiths and none will published every day throughout the month of Ramadan. 

Dear Interfaith Ramadan Blog Readers,
Text study, my biography (personal and professional), and my hopes and dreams are intertwined in this piece. I hope that the headings, sub-headings, numbers, and lists make the mixture pleasant and clear. When it’s not clear enough, please feel free to comment with your questions or suggestions so I can respond. Please also keep in mind that I’m trying to show you the ways my heart/mind/guts interact with sacred text, and that gets a little messy. Thank you for listening. Susan

My biography leads to my text study...

I’m Jewish. I’m a Reform Rabbi. I’m white.

I’m a loudmouth liberal feminist.

I’m American. I’m a Californian living in Texas, by way of New York.

I worked for 13 years as an educator in two different synagogue settings, coordinating education programming for adults and youth.

Since 1995, I’ve been teaching in various Jewish and interfaith settings.

Since fifth grade, I’ve lived for Jewish sleep-away camp.

I want to be an Interfaith Superhero, but I do not plan on wearing a cape.

My Project:
I’m working hard, studying Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas.
My current project stems from these main aspects of my personal experience:

1. I love the Hebrew Bible - reading, studying, teaching, discussing, and hearing it chanted. The Hebrew Bible - including even the parts I strongly dislike - is my guiding story. 2. History, dates, evidence, proof are not the most important aspects of religion or truth for me. I read sacred text out of an interest in humanity and human nature. I seek out the characters - even the reprehensible ones - because I believe readers can get to know them and learn from them. I am dedicated to the Literary Analysis of sacred text.
3. I live for building community - where people communicate honestly and openly, where people support each other, where people are interested in knowing each other - making each other laugh and supporting each other through tough times. Even though I often need to recharge with time alone with my crochet projects, I crave genuine conversation. This project is dedicated to building interfaith dialogue on the foundation of text study.
4. I’m a big fat feminist. Even before I arrived at Vassar College, I had many questions about equality and fairness. So, it’s no surprise that I’ve spent the past six months thinking about the treatment of one female character, a woman who is the catalyst for the story of Israelite liberation, the mother of a hero.

My Naive Assumptions:

A. I assumed that my religious-interfaith-activist-friends would see the world the way I do - through the prism of text. When I think about interfaith relationships between Muslims and Jews, I see us as mirror images of each other. I imagine us standing on opposite sides of the desert, focused on the same meaningful textual events. But you know what? Everyone doesn’t necessarily see the interfaith world through a literary lens. I’m focused on the characters we share: Hagar and Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac, and many more. B. I believed that there would be a million articles about the intersections of the sacred texts of Jews and Muslims. I believed that thousands of biblical scholars would have already written about, for example, Isaac and Ishmael in the Quran and in the Hebrew Bible. I found two incredibly helpful books and a few meaningful scholarly articles, but mostly I found articles ABOUT what the two sacred texts have in common IN GENERAL, but not focused LITERARY ANALYSIS of the two texts side-by-side. C. I expected that combining the characterizations from the two different sacred texts would reveal the “real” character in both. I believed that details about Moses’ mother from the Quran combined with details from the Hebrew Bible would produce the “real” woman. However, this exercise has produced a third character, a woman who teaches us about both texts and, in conversation with her Quranic and Biblical counterparts, reveals the rich detail of each of the characterizations.


I speak and write in English. When I get to know these characters, I recognize them by their Hebrew names. My Jewish/Hebrew life has influenced the way I think, talk, listen, read, and write. Now, I’m trying to combine the Hebrew and Arabic transliterations of the names of literary characters we have in common. For this project, I’m trying to separate myself from religion and from the idea that one text preceded the other. The Quran and the Hebrew Bible present similar stories about similar characters in different ways. I don’t want to privilege one text or one language over the other. To that end, I use alternating name combinations like: Musa/Moshe and Yocheved/Um Musa.

The Quran, Al Qasas 28:6-13
The Hebrew Bible, Exodus 2:2-10

The Mother of Moses

Unnamed in the Quran

In the Quran, she never receives a name. In Arabic transliteration, she is called Um Musa, which literally means “mother of Moses.” (In English language scholarship, Moses’ mother is often called Jochebed.) In Hebrew transliteration, scholars call her Yocheved. The biblical text calls her by name, only four chapters after introducing her as a wife and mother. In the Quran, this missing name is significant because a) Yocheved is named in the biblical account and b) her character receives something even more literarily and religiously significant in the Quran, revelation and commands from Allah. (The Quran 28:7) Allah selects her for divine gifts. Allah “fortified her heart, that she might be among the believers.” (The Quran 28:10) This unnamed woman, this mother of a hero, receives Allah’s direct comfort and command. (The Quran 28:7) Would her missing name be significant in the Quran if she was also Yocheved unnamed in the Hebrew Bible?

Silent in the Bible

The biblical account describes Um Musa/Yocheved’s behavior without recording any of her words. Biblical Yocheved does not speak to her husband about putting her child into the river. She does not speak to her daughter about protecting the baby. When the biblical account stands alone, literary gaps are many and wide. Even though readers know that Yocheved must have agreed to nurse her baby, in the employ of his newly adoptive mother, biblical listeners do not hear her answer. In the Hebrew Bible, Yocheved only speaks off the page. Her daughter, Moshe/Musa’s sister briefly embodies the privilege of speech, negotiating an arrangement between her mother and the daughter of Pharaoh, and reporting to each woman (Exodus 2:7-9). 

In the Hebrew Bible, Yocheved does not speak, nor does she or the narrator reveal her motivation. In fact, the biblical description of placing a three-month-old baby into a basket into a river seems like a dangerous, anti-maternal action. In the Quranic account, the character of Um Musa is a follower of Allah’s word, submissive to Allah’s command, the divine will. Allah gives Um Musa comfort and direction saying: “...if you fear for him, then cast him into the river, and fear not, nor grieve. Surely We shall bring him back to you and make him one of the messengers.” (The Quran, Al Qasas, 28:7) In the Quran, Um Musa gives her daughter direction: “And she said to [Musa’s] sister, ‘Follow him.’ So she watched him from afar….” (The Quran, 28:11) Readers see her motivation, and listeners hear her words.
Getting to Know The Third Woman

Together, these two accounts produce a third Um Musa/Yocheved, an obedient believer, finding strength in following divine commandments. She is a strong, patient, reverent follower of God. Yocheved/Um Musa is not only the catalyst in the saga of Musa/Moshe, but also a mother actively involved with her son’s safety and development. 
Getting to Know Each Other

If these were reports from different news agencies about a current event or similar reviews from our neighbors about a restaurant, many of us would automatically put the two presentations together to seek some truth. In the case where our two sacred texts present two similar truths about the mother of a hero, I would like to try a similar approach. While I recognize that there is truth in each sacred text, there is a third layer of truth, a third woman willing to teach us about faith and parenthood and about thriving in spite of dangerous circumstances.

I dream of bringing these two short paragraphs to many interfaith discussion groups. On the first level, there is so much to learn in each paragraph, just studying each text on its own, whether it’s my text or yours. On a deeper level, learning the “other” text with dialogue partners from the “other” culture/religion produces meaningful discussion about the text and leads to discussions about bigger topics. Text study, the intellectual pursuit of deeper understanding of sacred text, leads to partnership. Partnering in study leads to partnering in other ways, not only carpooling or breaking bread, but also sharing our world views and acquiring genuine empathy for each other. Putting the texts together and putting our heads together can help us get to know “others” well enough to to erase their otherness.

Rabbi Susan E. Lippe is a PhD student at Brite Divinity School.
Lippe writes at Learning The Hard Way and can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Book Recommendations:

Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives, Edited by Phyllis Trible and Letty M. Russell. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.)

Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qur’an, by John Kaltner. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003.)

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