Dancing Into a Feminist Future
The future is a weightless expanse of uncertainty. We stand on the shaking ground, never fully knowing what will come. The Jewish future, in many ways, is one of the truest extensions of this reality– and it’s one we acknowledge weekly. At the end of every week, as the aroma of Shabbat dwindles and the promise of a new week begins, people band together, often interlocking arms, as they recite this line of prayer and song:
מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה עֹז וְזִמְרָה בְּיָדָהּ
מִרְיָם תִּרְקֹד אִתָּנוּ לְהַגְדִּיל זִמְרַת עוֹלָם
מִרְיָם תִּרְקֹד אִתָּנוּ לְתַקֵּן אֶת-הָעוֹלָם
בִּמְהֵרָה בְיָמֵינוּ הִיא תְּבִיאֵנוּ
אֶל מֵי הַיְשׁוּעָה
Miriam, the prophetess, strength, and song are in her hands,
Miriam will dance with us, increasing the world's song,
Miriam will dance with us, repairing the world.
Soon, in our days, she will bring us to the waters of redemption.
Growing up there were many spaces where I participated in this sacred ritual. From camp to community spaces to even occasionally in my own household, I would joyfully say these words. When I was younger, I reveled in the joy of having a female-centered prayer to enjoy. I enthusiastically celebrated the egalitarian nature of this closing Havdalah service and the way that there was a song (Eliyahu Ha'nevi) celebrating Elijah, the male prophet, and one for Miriam. Often, during these ceremonies, the actual words of the prayer would fade away from my consciousness, suddenly irrelevant, and instead this song about a prophetess, Miriam, would simply take over. My younger feminist self was continually energized by the simple joy of having a female prophet to praise. However, as I have continued to grow and mature, these words and the promise of Miriam have come to hold new meanings. Over time this song has, for me, come to represent both the past and the promise of a new feminist Jewish future.
The widespread incorporation of this prayer into the weekly celebratory Havdalah service in itself is a feminist victory. The vast majority of Jewish liturgy has historically been, and still is in many places, written in masculine language, from a male perspective and with masculine undertones. At times, the liturgy even includes themes and prayers that are insulting to women. The effort to include women and incorporate feminine themes within the liturgy is still, in many Jewish communities, a tremendous struggle. For example, at my own Jewish pluralistic school, during the optional afternoon Mincha prayer service students recite a prayer featuring the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. On "traditional" days we do not count women towards the quorum of ten needed for a Jewish service (a minyan), and only name the patriarchs. On "egalitarian" days women count and can lead services, although despite my objections, school administrators determined that naming the biblical matriarchs (Sarah, Rebeca, Leah, and Rachel) was not a necessary component of egalitarianism on those days. Female liturgical inclusion, even in egalitarian spaces cannot be assumed, in my experience, and the very existence of a prayer celebrating Miriam is an important victory for all Jewish feminists.
Moreover, beyond its simple existence, the words of this prayer embody what a variety of aspects of the future of Jewish feminism could look like. This image of Miriam, of a prophetess, with strength and song spilling out from within her hands guides us as we fight for a better Jewish feminist future. Furthermore, we work with Miriam to increase the world's song, which includes expanding the amount of feminist liturgy available and infusing prayer with female undertones and stories. In my own life, people like Alicia Jo Rabins and her musical reinterpretation of feminist midrash or Judith Hauptman’s work—especially her book Rereading the Rabbi: A Woman's Voice— have been hugely inspiring. Miriam and her song represent a powerful hope that feminist voices will be included in all aspects of Jewish culture and ritual. By working with Miriam, we increase the world’s song therefore creating a place with more joy and jubilation.
The last lines of the song about repairing the world and redemption have always resonated with me. The idea that Miriam will dance with us to repair the broken world paints an image of a world in which change is actually achievable, and human beings are in contact and communication with those divine beings. How beautiful is the thought that by working with a prophetess we can advocate for a world that swirls with gender equality and egalitarianism? This type of divine communication allows for religion and godliness to be a powerful promotion of important values and beliefs.
Moreover, the language of dancing is also powerful in its looseness and simplicity. While we all have some preconceived notions about what dance is, at its core it is not truly defined. According to this prayer, this set of movements within each of us comes through differently is the tool that, when wielded, makes worldly repair achievable. Regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, and other social categories that exist, we can all act, moving our bodies in an intricate and unique dance that, together with Miriam, changes the world. Finally, I love that Miriam herself is the path toward redemption and will bring us to the waters of redemption.The dance that Miriam leads us on is the way that we become closer to God, and through those movements, the path to where feminist change becomes visible.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Gerwin, Adina. "Dancing Into a Feminist Future." 5 May 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 3, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/dancing-feminist-future>.