This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/10/17
Many of you know that I grew up reading and collecting comic books, and my fondness for the heroes and villains of those fantastical stories has stayed with me ever since. I rarely read a comic book these days, but I still generally will go out to the theater to see the newest super hero movie that comes to town. And there are plenty of movies to choose from – Batman vs. Superman, Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, Spiderman, X -Men, Guardians of the Galaxy, the movie industry has long ago learned that these movies, particularly when made well, are profitable, and that they also generate RETURN business – that is to say, there is often a second, third, and sometimes even fourth installment in the series.
But despite the abundance – or some might say over abundance – of super hero films, it is rare to see one of these movies garner the kind of attention that the new Wonder Woman movie has received. The movie has not only been a rousing success – it has already sold over 300 million dollars in tickets – it has also been a critical success, receiving an impressive score of 92% on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. And in addition to all of that, the movie has been notable for two other reasons, one from a feminist perspective, one from a Jewish perspective. Let me talk about the Jewish perspective first.
It was announced early on that the role of Wonder Woman would be played by an Israeli woman named Gal Gadot. As an 18 year old Ms. Godot won the Miss Israel contest in 2004, and then spent time as a professional model. Her acting career has really only taken off recently, and with the Wonder Woman film she has truly arrived. Without question the biggest role ever played by an Israeli actor, and Jews around the world have been scheping nahas, proud of the success of a native Sabra who served in the Israeli army.
Becky and Josh and Merav and I went to see the movie Tuesday night. We knew going in that Gal Gadot was Israeli, but we were all surprised at HOW Israeli she was. Throughout the film she speaks with an obvious Israeli accent, and her mannerisms are completely Israeli as well. If you close your eyes and listen to her voice you can easily imagine you are on Ben Yehuda St in Jerusalem sitting at one of the outdoor cafes, sipping a coffee. The second thing that struck me about the movie Jewishly is that it is set during the first World War, and the villains are mostly German soldiers. And there are a series of scenes where Wonder Woman almost single handedly defeats entire regiments of the German army. And when you are Jewish, and you know that the woman playing this character is Israeli, and she is defeating the Germans, it just has a certain resonance to it. The movie itself is fine – it is well done, it has terrific special effects – but at the end of the day it is a super hero movie – but if you are Jewish, it is worthwhile going to see it, just for these two reasons.
But it is also worthwhile going to see because of the national conversation it is generating about women, women’s roles, and equality in the workplace and elsewhere. Women have been flocking to this movie – in fact, a phenomenon has developed where groups of women will go together to see the film. Or women are going with their daughters, and in many cases reporting that the experience of watching a film with the central character of a woman who is stronger than any man, self assured, brilliant, and courageous – who is truly the hero and does not need to be rescued by a man – is a powerful experience, one they can’t ever remember having in their lives.
A couple of observations.
The first is that men should also go see Wonder Woman for this very same reason. In metaphoric terms it addresses, in a profound way, the power imbalance that still exists in our society between men and women. I don’t have to go through all of the statistics because I imagine you are familiar with them – that woman get paid lower salaries when working the same job a male counterpart is working, that the vast majority of CEO roles in Fortune 500 companies are filled by men – about %95. That women are treated differently in the work place, have different expectations to fulfill, the list goes on and on. And the simple truth is we men are not as sensitive to these issues as we should be. This movie will not resolve any of these problems, but it will – in fact it is – helping to raise awareness about them.
The second thing is – lucky for me – the movie ties in very well to this week’s Torah portion. Gal Gadot is not the first strong Jewish woman, even if she is the first to play the lead in a super hero movie. It has always been fascinating to me that the Torah, a text that is close to 2500 years old at this point, is filled with examples of women who are strong, courageous, and filled with a love of their tradition. You might very well expect the opposite, given that the Torah comes from a world that was almost entirely dominated by men. But you would never know that reading the stories of our ancestors. Sarah and Rebecca are powerful figures in the Torah, who in many ways orchestrate the dynamics of their families, making key decisions about how the tradition will be transmitted to the next generation despite the wishes of their husbands. Rachel is no slouch herself, neither is Leah.
And neither is Miriam, Moses’ sister who plays a central role in this week’s reading. We know Miriam well from her adventures in the book of Exodus, the woman who manages to save her brother Moses, get him into the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter, and then to work out a way for him to be taken care of by his own mother, no mean feat. She is called a prophet, the only woman so called in the entire Torah, and she leads the Israelite women in their own musical celebration after the crossing of the sea.
In this week’s portion her role is more complicated. She and Aaron speak out against their brother Moses, and God becomes angry at them because of it. God calls them out and scolds them, ‘how did you not shrink from speaking out against my servant Moses?!’ And then God punishes – Miriam. Only Miriam. For some reason, Aaron escapes scot free, but Miriam is afflicted with white scales that cover her body. And I’ve always wondered – why isn’t Aaron punished? Why only Miriam?
The traditional answer to that question is that Miriam was the instigator, that she led the charge, and Aaron was just tagging along. So she was punished, while he was simply scolded. But maybe there is another reason – perhaps, in a world dominated by men, there was a general discomfort with the idea that a woman would publicly challenge a man. For Aaron it was considered to be OK to confront his brother Moses, but for Miriam – a woman – unacceptable. So she was punished, while Aaron escaped unscathed.
We might say the more things change the more they stay the same. Far too often, and for too long, women’s voices have been silenced or ignored. The new Wonder Woman film with its Israeli star reminds us that we’ve come a long way in this regard. But at the very same time it reminds us we still have a long ways to go.