Like Grasshoppers: Reflections on Women’s Leadership

Jessica Goldberg, Hebrew College Rabbinic School  `19


During the week of June 3rd of this year, we will be reading Numbers 13-14, the classic story about the meraglim (scouts) Moses sends into Canaan to scope out the land that G-d promised to the Israelites.  Twelve scouts go, and ten return with a negative but honest report: “All of the people we saw there were like giants.  There we saw the Nephilim...we were grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so must we have been in their eyes” (Numbers 13:32-33).  The two scouts who returned positive reports, Joshua and Caleb, were named the next leaders of Israel after Moses, while the other ten were destined to die before reaching the Promised Land.

As a woman training for the rabbinate, I sympathize with the ten pessimists.  In a world built mostly by men, for men, and in a religion dominated by male voices for millennia, I have often felt like a grasshopper myself.  When I look at all that the world has to offer, sometimes the beauty and opportunity of that which is laid out before me is obscured as I struggle with this nagging feeling that nothing was created with me in mind.  I am an afterthought.  A grasshopper.  And so must I be to everyone else.

However, I am blessed to have women in my life who are able to see what Joshua and Caleb saw: an invitation.  Of course, inhabiting the land of giants would come with challenges.  The ten other scouts were right to be nervous and fearful.  But where there was not yet a place for the Israelites in Canaan, Caleb and Joshua determined that they would make one.

So it is with trailblazing women.  My female mentors and friends have claimed their own spots in the Beit Midrash (House of Study).  They have created their own prayer practices, adapting and innovating liturgy.  They have made traditional “male” ritual garb their own.  And together, we build Jewish spaces in which women’s voices are central.

I understand why the ten negative reporters were barred from future leadership roles.  If you see yourself as a grasshopper among giants, you will most likely not be able to muster the courage to change the course of history.  The scouts who were prepared to do what would be incredibly difficult were the ones who enacted our liberation.

Women have long been pivotal and innovative in the field of Jewish leadership beginning, in our Torah tradition, with Miriam, who, among other accomplishments, led the women in singing Mi Chamocha while crossing the sea to freedom.  Notable examples to this day include Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman ordained as a rabbi, partnered with psychologist Victor Frankl to build a crisis intervention center at Theresienstadt for inmates considering suicide.  Many of the synagogue melodies we think of as “classic” or “traditional” were composed by a young summer camp song-leader and modern Miriam figure, Debbie Friedman.

Please join us on June 3rd to celebrate the courage and accomplishments of women leaders in innovation.  The women you will meet and learn about have scouted out the terrain and have become giants in their own right.  You are invited to take a risk: Be courageous.  See what is possible.