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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The Torah reading, as a central part of the Sabbath and holiday liturgy, calls to mind and recreates the past for succeeding generations. When the story of Sinai is recited as part of the annual cycle of Torah readings and again as a special reading for Shavuot, women each time hear ourselves thrust aside anew, eavesdropping on a conversation among men and between men and God. As Rachel Adler puts it, "Because the text has excluded her, she is excluded again in this yearly re‑enactment and will be excluded over and over, year by year, every time she rises to hear the covenant read."

If the covenant is a covenant with all generations (Deuteronomy 29:13ff), then its reappropriation also involves the continual reappropriation of women's marginality.

Are Women Jews?

This passage in Exodus is one of the places in the Tanakh [the Bible] where women's silence is so deeply charged, so overwhelming, that it can provoke a crisis for the Jewish feminist. As Rachel Adler says, "We are being invited by Jewish men to re‑covenant, to forge a covenant which will address the inequalities of women's position in Judaism, but we ask ourselves, 'Have we ever had a covenant in the first place? Are women Jews?'"

This is a question asked at the edge of a deep abyss. How can we ever hope to fill the silence that shrouds Jewish women's past? If women are invisible from the first moment of Jewish history, can we hope to become visible now? How many of us will fight for years to change the institutions in which we find ourselves only to achieve token victories? Perhaps we should put our energy elsewhere, into the creation of new communities where we can be fully present and where our struggles will not come up against walls as old as our beginnings.

Yet urgent and troubling as these questions are, there is a tension between them and the reality of the Jewish woman who poses them. The questions emerge out of a contradiction between the holes in the text and the felt experience of many Jewish women. For if Moses' words come as a shock and affront, it is because women have always known or assumed our presence at Sinai; the passage is painful because it seems to deny what we have always taken for granted. Of course we were at Sinai; how is it then that the text could imply we were not there?

The Rabbis Were Troubled, Too

It is not only we who ask these questions. The rabbis too seem to have been disturbed at the implication of women's absence from Sinai and found a way to read women's presence into the text.

As Rashi [11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki] understood Exodus 19:3‑‑"Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel"‑‑"the house of Jacob" refers to the women and "the children of Israel" refers to the men. The Talmud interprets Exodus 19:15 ("Do not go near a woman") to mean that women can purify themselves on the third day after there is no longer any chance of their having a discharge of live sperm.

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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.