Women and Revelation

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

Commentary on Parashat Yitro, Exodus 18:1 - 20:23

Read from a feminist perspective, Yitro contains one of the most painful verses in the Torah. At the formative moment in Jewish history, when presumably the whole people of Israel stands in awe and trembling at the base of Mount Sinai waiting for God to descend upon the mountain and establish the covenant, Moses turns to the assembled community and says, “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman” (Exodus 19:15). Moses wants to ensure that the people are ritually prepared to receive God’s presence, and an emission of semen renders both a man and his female partner temporarily unfit to approach the sacred (see Leviticus 15:16-18). But Moses does not say, “Men and women do not go near each other.” Instead, at this central juncture in the Jewish saga, he renders women invisible as part of the congregation about to enter into the covenant.

These words are deeply troubling for at least two reasons. First, they are a paradigm of the treatment of women as “other,” both elsewhere in this portion and throughout the Torah. Again and again, the Torah seems to assume that the Israelite nation consists only of male heads of household. It records the experiences of men, but not the experiences of women. For example, the 10th commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (20:14), presupposes a community of male hearers.

Second, entry into the covenant at Sinai is not just a one-time event, but an experience to be reappropriated by every generation (Deuteronomy 29:13-14). Every time the portion is chanted, whether as part of the annual cycle of Torah readings or as a special reading for Shavuot, women are thrust aside once again, eavesdropping on a conversation among men, and between men and God. The text thus potentially evokes a continuing sense of exclusion and disorientation in women. The whole Jewish people supposedly stood at Sinai. Were we there? Were we not there? If we were there, what did we hear when the men heard “do not go near a woman”? If we were not there originally, can we be there now? Since we are certainly part of the community now, how could we not have been there at that founding moment?

The Larger Narrative Context

Given the seriousness of these questions, it is important to note the larger narrative context of Moses’ injunction to the men not to go near a woman. When the Israelites arrive at Sinai on the third new moon after leaving Egypt, Moses twice ascends the mountain to talk with God. After he brings God the report that the people have agreed to accept the covenant, God gives Moses careful instructions for readying everyone for the moment of revelation:

“Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow,” God says. “Let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day Adonai will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai” (Exodus 19:10-11).

It is striking that God’s instructions to Moses are addressed to the whole community. It is Moses who changes them, who glosses God’s message, who assumes that the instructions are meant for only half the people. Thus, at this early stage in Jewish history, Moses filters and interprets God’s commands through a patriarchal lens. His words are a paradigm of the treatment of women, but a complex one. They show how Jewish tradition has repeatedly excluded women, but also the way in which that exclusion must be understood as a distortion of revelation.

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.

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

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