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Shavuot 5770
Equality for Women at Sinai – has much changed?

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
19 May 2010

Aaron

I was struck by a photo in one of last week’s papers of a sea of male figures dressed in tuxedos and an almost invisible shock of long blonde hair in the centre. A paradox that one can be almost invisible, yet have a shock of hair in the centre. The shock of hair was that of Jane Campion, the only female film director to appear in that photo of the world’s film directors at the Cannes Film Festival.

It has been fascinating to see how the new government is taking shape and one of the most arresting sights was of course the first sitting of the cabinet. Four out of twenty-eight of those sat around the table are women.

Thinking of our own tradition, I was smug for a fleeting moment as I looked at the Book of Ruth and reflected that the Books of Ruth and Esther are the only megillot – scrolls associated with our festival cycle – to feature an individual and they are women – the others being Kohelet – Ecclesiastes - for Sukkot, Shir ha’Shirim – the Song of Songs – for Pesach and Eicha, Lamentations for Tisha B’Av. It was a brief moment of smugness though, as I looked ahead to this Shabbat and the return of all the blokes, the Prophets who dominate our Haftarah cycle.

As the Ten Commandments are revealed to the Israelites at Mt Sinai, did God address women as well as men? The Torah is very explicit in describing the people’s acceptance of God’s revelation: “All the people answered as one, saying, ‘All that the Eternal One has spoken, we will do!’ Then why did Moses, serving as God’s spokesman add the phrase “do not go near a woman” when he gave the people instructions on how to prepare to receive revelation? Why did he exclude women from these crucial preparatory moments?

Many questions are also raised in our Biblical tradition about the perception of women’s leadership abilities. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, when concerned about Moses’ workload, recommends that he seeks out “capable men” (Ex 18) to support him. Why did Jethro not consider women as capable leaders? Miriam has already been described as a prophetess and Jethro’s own daughter, Tziporah has taken the initiative as she circumcises her and Moses’ son (Ex 4:25). Why did Moses accept Jethro’s implicit negation of women as leaders?

Let us note, that it was Jethro and Moses who made the decisions that the ‘elders’ of Israel would be men. In the words of Rabbi Julie Gordon, a woman whose thought I have based this sermon, “Both they and those who passed these stories on were limited by their society’s understanding that women’s primary roles centred on the home and children.”

Elsewhere in the Bible, we have the example of Deborah, a judge without whose advice and military knowledge, the men were unwilling to go out to do battle. We do have models of women in leadership roles but our ancient ancestors seem to have largely overlooked them, or those who wrote the Tanakh marginalized them unless perhaps their fame had seen their stories top the charts in the people’s hearts. The traditional roles are sealed by later commentators. The great medieval Bible commentator, Nachmanides states (Ex 18:21): “Some scholars explain anshei chayil (from Jethro’s speech to Moses) as men of physical zeal, such as the ability to stand in the king’s palace (Daniel 1:4). Similarly, eishet chayil (Proverbs 31:10) is a woman of strength and industry in the work of the home.” The patriarchal bias of society, that of Moses’ limited perception is at play, not out of God’s directive.

Indeed, we can interpret the use of plural nouns to assert that the women were addressed by God at Sinai, as well as the men. In Exodus 19, God calls to the entire people without distinguishing gender. “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel” (Ex 19:3) to which Rashi comments: “the house of Jacob refers to the women and the children of Israel to the men.” “You shall be to me a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” If we follow Rashi’s previous comment, this perhaps serves as a pointed reminder to the men, who Rashi has identified as the children of Israel. Do not forget the role that the women shall play so that you shall all be a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Indeed, as God gives the instructions for the preparations for the defining moment of our ancestor’s and our heritage, the words recorded, all the verbs and nouns, are plural, indicating the entire people. God’s instructions conclude (Ex 19:13): “When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.” The account concludes with a reminder to the entire people how to act, both men and women, when they go up on the mountain. Yet Moses, instructs first the elders, the men, and calls them up and on coming back down divides the men from the women, “do not go near a woman.” Moses erects a mechitzah.

What a great loss to that generation and to all those who came after…until almost 200 years ago at the first Reform service to be held in Germany. Israel Jacobson established his Temple in Seesen, Westaphalia, with no mechitzah. And so today, we reenacted the Revelation at Mt Sinai, fulfilling God’s command to our people, both male and female. Yet we also did so in a Progressive fashion, not just hearing the words but speaking them, female and male stood together as role models for our young, our daughters and our sons.

Rabbi Pete Tobias: “It is a duty to recognize that human beings have a role to play in apprehending the will of God and a responsibility to join in the task of endeavouring to establish that will on earth.” Within this lies the mystery of Sinai. What was it that binds us as it bound our ancient ancestors to God?

In the mystery of Sinai, in the mystery of Ezekiel’s chariot, we find only 50% of the truth, if women are excluded. I think that we have fully understood this in Liberal Judaism. It seems that there is still a way to go in the film industry, in politics and so many aspects of life. Will we be bound by the bias of a society based in patriarchy or the freedom of God’s commands? Is this a matter of mind before action, or perhaps as our tradition has it, a leap of faith to do things differently and to say, naaseh v’nishma, we will do and then we will understand?

Amen.
 
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