Reshaping Jewish Memory

In the Torah, women are absent at the covenantal moment; to make up for this, Jewish history must be reconstructed.

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According to Judith Plaskow, Jewish women live with a fundamental paradox. When they look to Jewish texts and traditions, they often find themselves absent and excluded, and yet they feel and experience themselves to be part of the covenantal community. Plaskow argues that Jewish history and, indeed, Torah itself, in all its manifestations, must be reconceived and reshaped to inject women's viewpoints and visions into the Jewish communal consciousness. Reprinted with permission from Standing Again At Sinai.

Entry into the covenant at Sinai is the root experience of Judaism, the central event that established the Jewish people.jewish feminism

Given the importance of this event, there can be no verse in the Torah more disturbing to the feminist than Moses' warning to his people in Exodus 19:15, "Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman." For here, at the very moment that the Jewish people stands at Sinai ready to receive the covenant‑-not now the covenant with individual patriarchs but with the people as a whole‑-at the very moment when Israel stands trembling waiting for God's presence to descend upon the mountain, Moses addresses the community only as men.

The Profound Injustice of Torah Itself

The specific issue at stake is ritual impurity: An emission of semen renders both a man and his female partner temporarily unfit to approach the sacred (Leviticus 15:16‑18). But Moses does not say, "Men and women do not go near each other."

At the central moment of Jewish history, women are invisible. Whether they too stood there trembling in fear and expectation, what they heard when the men heard these words of Moses, we do not know. It was not their experience that interested the chronicler or that informed and shaped the Torah.

Moses' admonition can be seen as a paradigm of what I have called "the profound injustice of Torah itself." In this passage, the Otherness of women finds its way into the very center of Jewish experience. And although the verse hardly can be blamed for women's situation, it sets forth a pattern recapitulated again and again in Jewish sources.

Women's invisibility at the moment of entry into the covenant is reflected in the content of the covenant which, in both grammar and substance, addresses the community as male heads of household. It is perpetuated by the later tradition, which in its comments and codifications takes women as objects of concern or legislation but rarely sees them as shapers of tradition and actors in their own lives.

Living History

It is not just a historical injustice that is at stake in this verse, however. There is another dimension to the problem of the Sinai passage without which it is impossible to understand the task of Jewish feminism today. Were this passage simply the record of a historical event long in the past, the exclusion of women at this critical juncture would be troubling, but also comprehensible for its time. The Torah is not just history, however, but also living memory.

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Judith Plaskow

Judith Plaskow is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. She is the author of the landmark work Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, and has written and edited a number of other volumes on the topics of contemporary religious thought and feminist theology.