Women and Revelation

When Moses altered the message given to him by God, he cut women out of the revelation at Sinai.

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Rabbinic Reinterpretations

Interestingly, the Rabbis seem to have been disturbed by the implication of women's absence from Sinai, because they read women into the text in a variety of ways. B'reishit Rabbah 28:2 understands Exodus 19:3 ("Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel") to mean that "the house of Jacob" refers to the women and "the children of Israel" refers to the men. According to the midrash, the order of the verse suggests that God sent Moses to the women with the Torah first. Perhaps, the sages speculate, God regretted the mistake of not directly giving Eve the commandment concerning the forbidden fruit and so resolved not to repeat it. Besides, the Rabbis note, women are more careful in observing religious precepts, and they are the ones who will instruct their children. Rashi, commenting on the Mishnah (Shabbat 9:3; BT Shabbat 86a), interprets Exodus 19:15 ("Do not go near a woman") as a stricture specifically designed to enable Israel's women to be present at Sinai. Since semen loses its power to create impurity after three days, Moses' instruction to the men guarantees that women will remain ritually pure, even if they discharge residual semen during the Revelation. In other words, without ever naming Moses' distortion of God's words directly, the Rabbis sought to reverse its effects.

Several lessons can be drawn from this. One is the inseparability of revelation and interpretation. There is no revelation without interpretation; the foundational experience of revelation also involves a crucial act of interpretation. Second, we learn that the process of interpretation is ongoing. What Moses does, the Rabbis in this case seek to undo. While they reiterate and reinforce the exclusion of women in many contexts, they mitigate it in others. Third, insofar as the task of interpretation is continuing, it now lies with us. If women's absence from Sinai is unthinkable to the Rabbis--despite the fact that they repeatedly reenact that absence in their own works--how much more must it be unthinkable to women and men today who function in communities in which women are full Jews? We have the privilege and the burden of recovering the divine words reverberating behind the silences in the text, recreating women's understandings of revelation throughout Jewish history.

The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.

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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.