The Wonder Woman of the Torah
Today’s film scene is swarming with superheroes. DC Comics and Marvel have moved from the pages of comic books to the silver screen in the last decade. They’ve given us a few Batman and Spiderman iterations, our beloved Avengers, Deadpool, X-Men and more, all jumping from comics and TV to the big screen.
And FINALLY this month, they gave us a modern depiction of the ultimate female hero: Wonder Woman! The movie came out on June 2 and smashed box office records for a film directed by a woman and featuring a female lead super hero. As a young Jewish woman, I was particularly additionally excited by the casting of Israeli model/actress Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman herself.
The movie itself definitely spoke to me as a young Jewish woman in a number of ways. As one of my favorite Jewish bloggers, Rabbi Ruth Adar, the Coffee Shop rabbi, so aptly put it in her article, Is Wonder Woman Jewish?
“Does the film have Jewish content? You bet. It stars an Israeli woman. Wonder Woman may have a Greek name but she learns a very Jewish lesson: humanity was born good, with a terrible capacity for evil. The fight is to free that which is good while curbing that which is evil. It is not a simple task.”
Like many of the superhero movies and comics, the Jewish content is pretty clear… after all Jews have played a strong role in the superhero world. Most of America’s greatest superheroes were created by Jews. Superman, Captain America, Batman, Spider-Man, The Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Ironman, the X-men, Thor and the Avengers were ALL created by Jews—as Nirit Anderman notes in Supermensches: Comic Books' Secret Jewish History, an article published in Haaretz last year.
Thinking about the overwhelming Jewish influence on the world of superheroes and the buzz surrounding Wonder Woman, I couldn’t help but wonder about the women of the Torah.
At first glance the Torah is much like the comic book hero worlds of Marvel and DC-- extremely male centric. Sure, we have the Matriarchs, but are they really quite on the same level as the Patriarchs? I’d liken it to arguing that two female X-men characters should suffice as equivalent to the countless male heroes who have gotten their own movie spin-offs. They don’t, if you ask me. Female heroes in this new big screen edition of the comic world have, until now, been secondary.
And you can really argue the same for the Matriarchs of Judaism.
Who would really be considered the Wonder Woman of Judaism? I’ve eliminated the Matriarchs, but hear me out. Sarah’s role is mainly as a wife and mother. She is not in and of herself, a heroine. Rachel and Leah are also portrayed as wives and mothers who rarely exert their own agency. Rebecca is the only one who exerts some blatant agency in her orchestration of Jacob receiving the blessing of the first born from his father, but we perceive this agency as a deception in the Torah and therefore I wouldn’t consider it heroic.
By my criteria, a “Wonder Woman of the Torah”, has to have made an actionable difference that is more than just accessory to a male character and/or changed the course of the story told. She must be a rebel. So here are my contenders, in no particular order:
Deborah- Prophetess, Judge, and arguably even a general, Deborah led the Jews to defeat the Canaanite Army following her prediction that they would fall at the hands of a woman (the next one listed in fact!). Deborah stands for justice just as Wonder Woman does. She relentlessly pursues justice in her time of leadership in the Torah. She demonstrates military prowess on par with the warrior mentality of the comic book character too, in Judges 4:4-9. While we don’t see her out wielding a sword like Wonder Woman Diana of Themyscira, her prophecy and military instruction help the Israelites to victory.
Yael- The Wonder Woman of the comics, the 1975 TV depiction and today’s modern silver screen edition, can only be described as the contradictory “Warrior for Peace”. Yael too, is a fierce warrior for peace. She quietly lulls the enemy general Sisera to her tent and swiftly kills him by hammering a tent peg into his temple as he sleeps helping deliver an Israelite victory. While Wonder Woman is not quite so subtle, the ferocity is certainly equal.
Shifra and Puah- These midwives of the Exodus changed the course of history through a simple act of civil disobedience—the very first in history according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ D’var on Parsha Shemot where their story appears. They risked their lives and defied Pharaoh’s orders to kill any male Hebrew child born. As Rabbi Sacks notes, they did so with “little fuss or drama”. They didn’t see their act as heroic, they saw it as doing what was right. As Wonder Woman says, “It is our sacred duty to defend the world. And it is what I am going to do…I cannot stand by while innocent lives are lost”.
Is there really a Wonder Woman of the Torah? Absolutely. The women listed above each embody one element of what we know of today’s Wonder Woman. They are fierce, they are warriors, they are smart, they believe in justice and they fight for what is right.
The Torah speaks directly of these traits, which Jewish husbands sing of each Friday night with the words of the poem “Eshet Chayil”, “Woman of Valor” of Proverbs 31:10-31. If read literally it speaks of a strong Jewish wife and homemaker. But if we read it as all poems are meant to be read, as metaphoric, we find a dedication to strong women of all sorts. It is a dedication to the Wonder Woman of the Torah—a woman who is fierce, smart and righteous.
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