by: Mark Kirschbaum on January 10th, 2012 | 5 Comments »
This week’s essay is very timely, as it deals with the role of women in society (in this case, revolutionary society), offering a set of traditional readings whose authors would likely be horrified at the recent events in Bet Shemesh, and perhaps provide for us a Torah viewpoint on the subject of “biopolitics”, the way health and access to healthcare has become a central issue of modern society, and some hints about bio-control and gender.
The opening sections of the Book of Shemot (Exodus) sketch the rapid transformation of the mighty tribes of Jacob into the despised slave chattel of Egypt. Within a few short sentences, we are told how the new administration of Egypt decides to transform a group of successful outsiders into a subservient drone class. This societal transformation was so successful that it continued for hundreds of years without resistance, until a Moshe arises and ignites emancipatory fervor. However, there is one episode, apparently towards the end of the enslavement epoch (though the text itself does not provide a date), which details an apparently small pocket of resistance led by two women, described as Israelite midwives named Shifra and Pu’ah.
Given the importance of the Moshe narrative immediately following, less attention has been given to these few verses. Given current developments in history, and with the growing centrality of issues related to autonomy of the body, the time has come to award these passages a more careful reading. I was initially drawn to these verses by a curious Midrash and its interpretation by the Tiferet Shelomo. However, upon further examination of this problematic passage and some of the classic Hasidic expositions upon it, I found myself overwhelmed with an entire set of positions regarding martyrdom, death, bio-ethics, government control of medical resources, definitions of truth, the overall ethical position of the Other and the power of the sovereign and society.
Here is a simple restatement of the curious passage: We are told that the Israelites were dehumanized through demeaning labor, and then in the next verse the “King of Egypt” addresses the Israelite midwives, ordering them to observe the following medical procedure – if the infant appears to be a female, she should be properly delivered, if a male, he should be terminated. The midwives, fearing God, refused to comply and delivered the males as well. The king hears of this and interrogates the midwives, asking “why have you done this deed, allowing the children to live?” They then reply to Pharoah that the Israelite women differ from the Egyptian women as they are “live ones”, a phrase whose meaning is unclear, but for now we’ll paraphrase that it means the Israelite women deliver babies before medical care arrives. The next verses seem a bit confused, there is an alternation of the fate of the midwives with that of the people – God was good to the midwives, the people multiplied vastly, the midwives feared God and houses were made for them (this ambiguous “them” is in the text). Then Pharoah commands the whole nation to drown all the male children in the sea and allow the females to live.
Critical piecess of information are not provided by this text. When was this murderous edict issued, early in the enslavement or late? What were Pharoah’s reasons for issuing this command? Surely an edict this horrendous should be explained. This textual deficiency is so glaring that the reading of Rashi has become as accepted as though it were present in the passage. According to Rashi, following the Midrash Tanhuma, Pharoah’s astrologers prophesized the birth of a Redeemer, and thus chose to slay all the male children (this is akin to the New Testament story of Herod, and is of course, the version presented by Cecil B. DeMille). It is of interest to note that this reading in not found in the Talmud’s discussion of this story, in Sotah 11. , which leaves the reasons for this edict an aporia.
The Daat Moshe offers an alternative hypothesis about Pharoah’s plans, one which reads well given the events of the twentieth century, and the continued attempts at legislative control of the body. Perhaps a surprising and novel reading of this passage can be appropriated.
First, however, some background. Foucault, at the end of his History of Sexuality Part I, develops the theme of “bio-power”. To summarise, the change in societial order from earlier times to the modern period regarding legislative control is that formerly, under systems of monarchy, the sovereign had the right of putting someone to death. When the power of monarchy was assumed by capitalist systems, control was shifted from the ability to take away life from the ability to allow life, to grant those aspects of medical care only to those deemd eligible to receive it. The emphasis has shifted towards access, as the contemporary conflicts surrounding universal health care demonstrate. As Giorgio Agamben explains:
…our private biological body has become indistinguishable from our body politic, experiences that once used to be called political suddenly were confined to our biological body, and private experiences present themselves all of a sudden outside us as body politic… (Agamben, In This Exile, in Means Without End, pp137)
Agamben, one of the more sensitive contemporary thinkers to deal with the twentieth century legacy of refugees, camps, and the Shoah, develops Foucault’s concept into an analysis of the centrality of the concentration camp to Nazi biopolitics:
The fundamental caesura that divides the biopolitical domain is that between people and population, which consists in bringing to light a population in the very bosom of a people, that is, in transforming an essentially political body into an essentially biological body, whose birth and death, health and illness, must then be regulated… (Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz pp. 84)
Thus there are those inside the system who maintain a political Life, and those extruded from the system who are stripped of rights and thus find themselves in the situation he calls naked life, (or bare life, this is a disagreement among Agamben’s translators). When this state of segregation becomes an institution, the concentration camp arises:
Inasmuch as its inhabitants have been stripped of every political status and reduced completely to naked life, the camp is also the most absolute biopolitical space that has ever been realized – a space in which power confronts nothing other than pure biological life without mediation (Agamben, What is a Camp? in Means Without End, Pp.40)
Thus, to Agamben, the key to understanding the horrors of the Shoah is understanding how the system was able to progressively strip human beings of their rights to the point that they remained with nothing but bare naked life. Once people are reduced to this level of bare life, Arendt’s “place where anything is possible” becomes a reality.
With this brief introduction in place, we can return to our text and the Hassidic commentators, and build upon these concepts as we proceed. First we need to examine this strange edict, Pharoah’s command to save the female children and let the male children die. The Shem Mishemuel notes that upon Pharoah’s discovery of the survival of the male children, he asks, “what have you done?”, a strange question because what is being questioned is seemingly what the midwives didn’t do, that is, kill the children. He answers that what they did, as a positive act, was imbue the mothers and children with revolutionary ardor and joy, but we can also now understand that what the midwives did was provide the children with medical care.
This is then, the meaning of (verse 17) “vatichyena et hayiladim“, literally translated as they “made live” the children, as in the Targum. In other words, Pharoah was exercising an early instance of bio-control – the girls were to be allowed health care and thus survival, whereas the boys were to be banned, excluded, and thus left to die. Hence Pharoah’s surprise at what was done for the male children, when his decree was that nothing be allowed done for them. Support for a bio-control reading of this passage is also found in the fact that it was specifically to the healthcare providers, the midwives Pharoah turned to in the first place, only calling upon his people to murder the children in a later verse, when this approach fails.
Once the power of biocontrol is acknowledged, much of the Hassidic readings of this passage fall into place – Why only the males? The Daat Moshe, as we noted above, veers from the “Herodian” take presented by Rashi, and offers a novel reading – Pharoah wanted the males to disappear, so that the females would be forced to “breed” with the Egyptians and thus this separate ethnicity would disappear. Hints to this are recognized by the Beer Mayim Hayim, based on Sotah 11, where sexual overtures are read into Pharoah’s conversation with the midwives. Here we see an extreme example of where the private becomes the political through biopower; it is noteworthy that Agamben feels that a new threshold of camp has been defined in Yugoslavia with the formation of ethnic rape camps, (which didn’t exist as such under Nazi power because birth was so defining a concept), one could rephrase the Daat Moshe as implying that Pharoah was turning Goshen into an ethnic breeding camp, or worse.
The fact that a state of exception is being invoked here, a revocation of basic rights (ie access to health care, to being allowed to live) is noted by the Yismach Moshe. He points out that in the first verses of this passage, the edict comes from the “King of Egypt”, however, in their response to him, the midwives first use the name Pharoah, which the Yismach Moshe reads as an encoded critique within the response of the midwives. They cease calling him King of the Egyptians because once a lawmaker creates a group in a state of exception, a group without rights among the society, a group left to bare life, then the sovereign has lost his legitimacy; he is no longer “King” to them, just the murderous Pharoah.
The midwives then respond, evading their violation of Pharoah’s illegal edict by asserting (verse 19) that the “Israelite women” are not like the “Egyptian women”, because “huyot hena“, before medical care arrives they have already successfully given birth. The Yismach Moshe reads this statement as insinuating that Pharoah has no mandate over the people once the Israelite women have been marked off as a different and unique population. But what does “huyot hena” actually mean? The Targum, followed by Rashi, Rashbam, Saadia, and others defines it as meaning that the women are smart, or good at self-delivery. Rashi, following the BT Sotah 11, offers the reading of huyot as being derived from hayot, animals, animality; that they deliver effortlessly like animals of the field (The Talmud and Rashi temper the animal reference by invoking the metaphorical use of animality, as in the blessings given by Jacob at the end of Bereishit, the Maharal does play upon the biological, though trying to put a positive spin on it by offering that the Israelite women had some kind of better biology, more refined, so to speak).
In our context of bio-control, reading huyot as a critique of a society that reduced women to the most primitive level of biological existence may be correct. However, the Hassidic writers saw these midwives as revolutionary heroes; as the Yismach Moshe states:
“the righteous deeds of the midwives kept the Jewish people alive, to this very day!”
So what then does “huyot” mean? We have seen that the Shem Mishemuel read this word as referring to revolutionary joy and ardor; they gave the women and their children a meaning to live for. Many of the Hassidic commentators link this statement to the “reward” given by Gd to the midwives and the people implied in the next two verses:
…And the Lord was good to the midwives, and the people flourished. And the midwives feared the Lord, and batim, houses, were made for them…
This interweaving of the people and the midwives creates some intentional ambiguity, as does the odd word, “batim“, most literally translated as “houses”. Without diminishing the importance of acquiring real estate, what does this all mean? It is meaningless to read this passage as implying that Gd gave them some kind of prize for their effort, and the commentators avoid this interpretation.
The Mei Hashiloach states that having a house is like the phrase in English, your home is your castle – in other words, they were given the courage to continue opposing the evil regime! Similarly, the Daat Moshe says the midwives’ words were given the strength of conviction, as we see in the text that Pharoah accepted their words and has no reply!
The Yismach Moshe notes the ambiguity of the “them” in the phrase “made them houses” – it is unclear if it means the midwives or the people. For this reason, he imagines that in order to save all these mothers and children, a vast network of safe houses with full provisions, safeguards of secrecy, an Israelite underground railroad, so to speak, had to be set up; the fact that they were successful is the message of this phrase.
The most extreme reading of this segment, based on a curious Midrashic statement, also points the way towards a response to bio-power. How does one respond, how does one react to the dehumanizing forces which are deeply imbedded in the system of bio-control (anyone who has tried to get proper medical care out of Kupat Cholim, or tried to get any care at all in the US without very good insurance, has a taste of this experience)? Alain Badiou in his work “Ethics” points out that even all these contemporary committees on bio-ethics are in a sense frightening; after all, the attempt to define what constitutes a “dignified” life can lead to euthanasia when a committee’s visions of life (say, the elderly, or to a Nazi, the mere life of any non-Aryan) are not “aesthetic” enough to be maintained. As Agamben points out, the end result of bio-power is that even death is rendered meaningless by the camps. The Nazis spoke of “fabrication of corpses” and the SS referred to the dead as Figuren:
…the expression “fabrication of corpses” implies that it is no longer possible truly to speak of death, that what took place in the camps was not death, but rather something infinitely more appalling. In Auschwitz, people did not die; rather, corpses were produced. Corpses without death, non-humans whose decrease is debased into a matter of serial production. And, according to a possible and widespread interpretation, precisely this degradation of death constitutes the specific offense of Auschwitz, the proper name of its horror. (Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, pp 71)
If death, then, is not an option, as it has been rendered, in Agamben’s phrase, an epiphenomenona, then how to respond? How can response even be entertained in our case, where the victims are infants, who have no language, and thus cannot bear witness or testimony? The being-towards-death of Heidegger is a luxury only for the oppressor, for the victims death is the status quo…
Hence we turn to a remarkable reading by the Tiferet Shelomo. He cites the Midrash Rabba which picks up on the word “yir’at Elokim“, awe, fear and reverence of God, used to describe the midwives here is the same term used to describe Abraham after the Binding of Isaac. This linguistic link, explains the Tiferet Shelomo, teaches that the actions of the midwives achieved the exact same effect as Abraham’s sacrifice! In other words, perhaps in Abraham’s situation a willingness to sacrifice that most dear to him for God was paralleled by the actions of the midwives to make the children survive.
When death is the bottom line and the given state of affairs, then survival must be the response. If death is meaningless, then life in its fullest is the surest act of revolution. The refusal of the midwives to allow death to proceed made them the vehicle for the archetype of social change, the Exodus. The Degel Mahane Ephraim explains the odd term “batim” dealt with earlier as referring to the “batim” the containers of the tefilin. Tefilin, in mystical thought, are the connection whereby spiritual efflux is brought into the physical world, so too the midwives acted as the channel whereby the great forces of liberation could be realized later through Moses, Aharon, and Miriam, via the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai. As the Tiferet Shelmo implies, this act of making-live transformed all the Israelite women, so that they became “huyot hena“, makers of life, conspirators of survival, the vanguard against unjust society.
Thus, in summary, the critical moment of liberation is implied not in the later Moshe narrative, but here, in the victory of the midwives. Pharoah’s goal was the subjugation of a people through bio-control, by not granting the right to live to an entire population. The response of the midwives was to make live, to make the giving of life, rather than the taking of life, the key towards liberation. Faced with this, Pharoah had no alternative but to turn his entire nation into murderers – verse 22: And Pharoah commanded all his nation saying, all male children must be tossed into the sea…
A complete break from such a system was the only way to proceed. This type of evil society has to be entirely repudiated. There was no room for changing the system from within, which is why Moshe initially fails by killing an Egyptian, what we might call a terrorist act today. Random violence will not change the status of the subjugated. Only a new society, built on equal life-access for all, even the stranger and the temporary inhabitant, could be called a just, God fearing society. This lesson is as urgent today as it was thousands of years ago.