Saw you at Sinai?
Regular readers of this parasha blog will know that I don’t often take up an explicitly feminist theme. Sure, I’m interested in highlighting stories of the women in the Torah, but not always. I’ve tried to keep my subjects varied, along with the style - from the broad to the focused, from the linguistic to the historical, from the troubling to the soothing. In a few week’s time, amazingly, I will have been writing these posts for a whole year of parshiot. I welcome your feedback (anonymous - you can say whatever you like) on what you’ve liked and what you’d like to see improved on as I take the leap of moving to the format of 60 second videos.
Today we’re dipping a toe into feminist thought. Because once you’ve read the awesome narrative of receiving the commandments at Mount Sinai through this lens, it’s hard not to un-see it. And if there’s any common theme in these divrei Torah so far, it’s not shying away from the big issues. The issue here was best phrased by the feminist theologian Judith Plascow in her 1990 book “Standing Again at Sinai”:
“There is perhaps 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 stand at Mount Sinai ready to enter into the covenant… Moses addresses the community only as men”
In other words, if the community is addressed with the words “do not go near a woman” then quite simply, women are not included in the community.
This is not all. The last of the 10 commandments reads: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife. You shall not crave your neighbour’s house, or his field, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbour’s.” The assumption is quite clearly that this commandment is addressed to people who have wives, namely to men. (And given the mention of possessions, it seems to also be addressed at men of a certain age and level of wealth).
Language matters. If you haven’t noticed this gendered language before, the chances are that it has still entered on a subconscious level, leading to the inevitable othering of women. And that’s before we deal with the explicit challenge of women not seeming part of the community at Sinai.
These challenges are the stuff that Kehillat Nashira and partnership minyanim around the world were built on. While we stick faithfully to the Orthodox siddur, the one change to liturgy that we have incorporated - with guidance from our halachic advisors - is to remove the word “ונשיהם” “and their wives” from the sentence in the Mi Sheberach for the community read just before mussaf. The original sentence reads “may [God]... bless this holy congregation…: them, and their wives… and all that is theirs”. Like the Sinai line, this prayer would imply that wives are not part of the congregation - so the “congregation” is just mean.
To attempt to resolve this issue in the remaining paragraph of space is nigh on impossible, but thankfully Judy Klitsner has done a great job in this podcast. She gives three possible responses: First - rather than giving up on the Torah, read deeper to find inclusion within what appears to be exclusive, for example elsewhere we see the congregation at Sinai clearly addressing women too. Second, in the words of the always-edgy Ibn Ezra:
דבר הכתוב אלהים כנגד מחשבת עובדימו
“The text speaks in line with the thoughts of those who worship them” - in other words the text is addressed to the patriarchal societies of the time and will not always speak to us today. And third, look to other books of Tanakh as “subversive sequels” to our text; Klitsner gives Shir HaShirim as one example where a woman’s voice is in equilibrium and harmony with that of her male counterpart.
I’ll add just one more response, which picks up where Ibn Ezra leaves off. Our tradition is a developing one. Starting with the Mishna and Gemara and continuing to the centuries of midrash beyond, we continue to write our story. The midrash (Shemot Raba 28) first gives the idea that every Jewish soul was at Sinai - male and female - even the souls of future converts to Judaism. The Jewish dating site sawyouatsinai.com takes up this theme. And we too today, one community at a time, Kehillat Nashira playing its (I believe very valiant) part, do the work of making sure that women are indeed part of “the community”.