We owe it to the midwives

This chinuch article is by Gabriel Webber. It expresses his personal views and not those of the movement.

There was a short discussion on Veidah about LJY-Netzer and protest – specifically whether it is appropriate to wear movement clothing on demos.

I quite enjoyed that discussion.

And those of you as subversive and radical as my good self will have quite enjoyed the excellent Disobedient Objects exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It contains items from a suffragette teacup to an inflatable cobblestone, all of which were used as some form of protest. There’s a saucepan lid that managed to depose four Argentinian Presidents; sexy gorilla costumes used in a feminist demonstration against the male-dominated world of art; even a rather impressive ‘leaflet bomb’ that slightly puts my Israel Tour Publicity Strategy to shame.

They were all Disobedient Objects because their creators used them to disobey, disrupt and frustrate governments abusing their power.

It was (and is, until the beginning of February) a brilliant display. But if I had to give two criticisms, the exhibition was missing two Egyptian sarcophagi – ‘mummy-cases’ if you prefer.

prince of egypt babiesBecause in this Shabbat’s parasha, the start of the Book of Exodus, we read of the first recorded act of civil disobedience, carried out by two (non-Jewish) (Egyptian) (female) midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.

The Pharaoh spoke to Shiphrah and Puah, saying, “When you deliver a Hebrew baby, if it is a boy, kill him.” But fearing God, the midwives did not do as Pharaoh had told them. They let the boys live. And God rewarded the midwives well. And the Hebrews increased and multiplied greatly.

Ronald Dworkin, the political theorist, said there were three types of civil disobedience: (1) integrity-based, where people disobey a law they consider objectionable, just like Shiphrah and Puah; (2) justice-based, where people do something they feel they should have a right to do even though it is actually illegal: think Rosa Parks or the Women of the Wall; and (3) policy-based, where people do something illegal to protest against something unrelated, such as by smashing a window to protest against tuition fees.

Dworkin might, in an odd mood, describe the ten plagues as a form of policy-based protest: God breaking the ‘laws of nature’ to wreak havoc on the Egyptians in the hope of persuading them to change their ways. But it is noteworthy that these destructive, violent methods were only used by God directly; human intervention was limited to non-violent disobedience, and integrity-based disobedience at that.

Most of the Disobedient Objects in the V&A were used for policy-based disobedience: clogging up the streets with inflatable cobblestones to protest against unfair working practices; banging saucepan lids to hound a politician into resigning; physically attaching oneself to a government building in a bid for fairer tax laws.

And these were all important. But Shiphrah and Puah did something different and perhaps better. They broke Pharaoh’s commandment with pride, to save lives and become the first ‘righteous among the nations’.

Most people came into this world thanks to a midwife. But as Jews whose ancestors were in Egypt, if it weren’t for those two midwives, and their invention of civil disobedience, perhaps we wouldn’t be here at all. And perhaps we – as a youth movement dedicated to tikkuning the olam – could take a lesson from them.

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