Miep Gies and the Power of Human Decency

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, on last week’s Torah portion:

How moving it is…that the first recorded instance of civil disobedience – predating Thoreau by more than three millennia – is the story of Shifra and Puah, two ordinary women defying Pharaoh in the name of simple humanity. All we know about them is that they “feared G-d and did not do what the Egyptian king had commanded.” In those words, a precedent was set that eventually became the basis of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Shifra and Puah, by refusing to obey an immoral order, redefined the moral imagination of the world.

I’m thinking of these words in particular this morning as I hear the news of the death Miep Gies – an ordinary woman who defied the Nazis in the name of simple humanity.

In his dvar, Sacks’ discusses the age-old debate: were Shifra and Puah “Hebrew midwives” or “midwives to the Hebrews?”  His answer – it doesn’t matter:

The Torah’s ambiguity on this point is deliberate. We do not know to which people they belonged because their particular form of moral courage transcends nationality and race. In essence, they were being asked to commit a “crime against humanity, and they refused to do so.”

This is perhaps Gies’ most important legacy to us today. Like her Biblical forebears she reminds us that basic human decency is a universal form of resistance – and still the most powerful.

4 thoughts on “Miep Gies and the Power of Human Decency

  1. jil Levin Deheeger

    Brant – What a wonderful perspective. I have been very moved today (and before today, too) by the “simple” and extraordinarily courageous outlook of Meis. NPR was playing some of her interviews today. What a woman, and what she lived through – gained and lost.

  2. Ross

    The wonderful story of Shifra and Puah is, I think, made more intriguing when one uses the Buber-Rosenzweig suggested translation, mentioned in a footnote by Fox, in which the midwives say to Pharaoh “Indeed not like the Egyptian are the Hebrew women, indeed they are animals: before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth!

    In this translation/interpretation, the midwives use the Alinskyite tactic of turning the racism of Pharaoh against him. It provides and explanation of how the midwives got out of performing the task that Pharaoh assigned and survived the encounter.

  3. Shirley Gould

    And what’s more, basic human decency is something activated by an individual. It doesn’t take an organization to promote it. All it takes is for each of us to act as if we absolutely know what the highest form of human activity is, and then DO it. One by one, even standing alone, each of us demonstrates human behavior, and it is our responsibility to understand and to act in the highest possible way.

  4. Ruth Rosen

    Thank you for this article. I had meant to save it from the Los Angeles Times. So now I have it from you. Seldom have I ever read anything more poignant, and it renews ones hope in this cynical world. To be brave and humane and do the right thing is inspiring, when it seems safer to be quiet.


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