Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at http://sotah.net/. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.
Women did not stand at Sinai. The literal translation of the text is clear. Moshe tells the men “be ready against the third day; come not near a woman.” Exodus 19:15. Women were not invited.
The Rabbis are not satisfied with this text. According to the story in the Talmud, not only were women and men present at the receiving of the Torah at Sinai, but so were the souls of all future generations, including the converts. (Hence the name of the Jewish dating site “Saw you at Sinai.”). Shabbat 146a. The Talmud interprets the line regarding not drawing near women as a matter of ritual purity, after three days women would be able to go the mikvah and ritually purify themselves (this is still problematic, since some women would inevitably be menstruating, and would be unable to go to the mikvah). Rashi interprets God telling Moshe to say to the “house of Jacob and to relate to the children of Israel” as referring to both men and women, where the “house of Jacob” refers to women, and “children of Israel” refers to the men. Exodus 19:3.
Contemporary feminist writers have followed in the Rabbi’s revisionist tradition; most famously the feminist theologian Judith Plaskow, the author of Standing Again at Sinai, writes:
To accept our absence from Sinai would be to allow the male text to define us and our connection to Judaism. To stand on the ground of our experience, on the other hand, to start with the certainty of our membership in our own people is to be forced to re?member and recreate its history, to reshape Torah. It is to move from anger at the tradition, through anger to empowerment. It is to begin the journey toward the creation of a feminist Judaism.
And the poet Merle Feld writes:
My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there
It seems like every time I want to write
I’m always holding a baby…
Her entire poem can be found here.
I do not write myself into Sinai – after all, the people stood at the bottom of the mountain trembling before the God and the law, only Moshe and Aaron went up. The story of Sinai is a story of single law giver, and a nation of receivers standing beneath the clouds. If I were to write myself into a moment of Jewish becoming, I would claim a seat in the yeshiva in Yavneh, circa 200 CE, sitting next to the codifiers of the Mishnah, sharing a tea with Yehuda HaNasi.
Described as one of the greatest men of his generation, Yochanan ben Zakkai, when given an opportunity to ask a Roman general for a wish, does not ask the general to save the temple in Jerusalem, he asks the general for an opportunity to establish centers of learning in Yavneh.
I would claim a seat in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom, the one where Moshe time travels to while he is standing on Sinai.
[God said]: “There is a person who will come to be after many generations, called Akiva ben Yosef; he will one day expound heaps upon heaps of laws from each and every horn.”
[Moshe] said before God: “Master of the world, show him to me.”
[God] replied: “Turn around.” He turned around and [found himself] behind the eighth row [in the Talmudic academy–behind the regular students arranged in order of excellence in the first seven rows]. Moses did not understand the discussion and was dazed. When [Akiva] came to a certain point, his students asked hib.
I want a seat at the table of law creation and not a standing-room-only spot on the ground floor – when the action is on top. Standing at Sinai is just not good enough.