God included women at Sinai

God included women at Sinai

For more than half a century, rosh chodesh Sivan, the start of the Jewish month of Sivan, has evoked mixed emotions in me.

On the one hand, it heralds the arrival of Shavuot, with its rejoicing at the re-enactment of Sinai; on the other, it marks the yahrzeit of my beloved bubbe, Breineh (Becky) Didovsky Green. Intertwined with communal joy, the excitement at approaching Sinai – and the cathartic effect of making blintzes – is the personal sorrow for the loss of the grandparent whom I knew best and longest, who lived with us in the Roxbury section of Boston and was my constant childhood companion.

As I schlepped from Teaneck to Madison Square Park in Manhattan on Friday by bus and subway, I was trying to sort this out. I was heading to the Shacharit service in support of Women of the Wall, sponsored by Jewish Voices Together, an organization founded by Rabbi Iris Richman to demonstrate that although we Jews may pray from different prayer books, with multiple voices, we can raise our voices in a harmony resonating with pluralism.

Underlying my early-morning reverie was the question of the role of women in Judaism, the place of Jewish women at prayer, at the Wall, at Sinai. As a religiously observant Jewish woman, I have engaged with these issues personally and assumed the responsibility of davening daily in tallit and tefillin. As a veteran of the controversy surrounding the ordination of women as rabbis in the Conservative movement, a Jewish Theological Seminary faculty decision in which I was privileged to participate not quite 30 years ago, I have spent countless hours thinking, writing, debating these issues. As a JTS faculty member and its first woman vice chancellor, I also have spent a lot of time talking with women and men studying to become rabbis and cantors, exploring together the roles they are about to assume.

Are Jewish women part of the covenant?

On Shavuot, the Torah reading puts this issue before us in a striking manner. After the Israelites gathered at Sinai affirm that they will do all that God commands, God tells Moses: “Go to the people and order them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day the Lord will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai” (Exodus 19:10-11). To this point it is clear that all the Israelites, women and men, are to be included. But, when he transmits God’s instructions, Moses says: “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman” (Exodus 19:15). Clearly, Moses must be addressing only the men.

The exclusion of women is not divine, but human. Indeed, as the text continues, that exclusionary language is ignored, for it is “kol ha’am asher bamachaneh” – all the people who were in the camp – whom Moses leads out to stand at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16-17).

Of course Jewish women are fully part of the covenant, but what does full participation entail? From a pre-modern perspective, Judaism, like the rest of the world, prescribed gender-distinct roles for women and men. Jewish women accepted as full participation a perspective that viewed a host of mitzvot, of commandments, as unnecessary for their fulfillment. As we have moved into modernity, or post-modernity, the notion of separate but equal has been challenged – and it has been rejected by the majority of Jews.

My bubbe was on the cusp of modernity. At age 12 she set out on her own from Bialystok to Boston, traveling first over land to Hamburg and then by boat to America. In Boston she had a much older sister, with children her age, with whom she could find shelter from what apparently had become an untenable relationship with her stepmother. Throughout her life she remained a pious Jew who maintained the traditional Judaism she had learned at home, prayed, observed Shabbat and holidays, and raised three children whose commitment to Judaism was unwavering. She was independent enough not only to undertake the trip on her own, but later to travel alone to Providence to meet the man who was to become her husband, and, when my mother, her youngest, was in high school, to attend school, earning an eighth-grade certificate at night. I cannot imagine that Bubbe ever questioned the significance of her role in the rich Jewish life she lived. But her time is not our time.

My eldest grandchild, Talya, is almost 12, and independent enough to fly with two friends to Denver to attend Ramah in the Rockies. She also has taken on the challenges of playing Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, speech competition, dance, basketball, and, of course, the rigorous double curriculum at Boston’s Jewish Community Day School. As she looks forward with confidence to celebrating becoming a bat mitzvah, taking on the mitzvot including davening in tallit and tefillin, she knows that her soul was at Sinai.

Raising my voice in prayer on rosh chodesh Sivan in a glorious spring morning at Madison Square Park, I could almost imagine bubbe and Talya praying with me. As we faced east, the sun in a virtually cloudless blue sky was streaming down on us, occasionally obscured by the shadow of the buildings on Park Avenue. The dominant sound was that of Jewish women, accompanied by some men, welcoming the new month, praising God with the Hallel psalms, reading Torah. There were Jews of all persuasions participating and occasional onlookers, cutting across the park, stopped to investigate this unusual New York scene. Some visiting Israeli women social workers were called up for an aliyah to the Torah, for most it was their first – an incredibly moving experience.

And it is to make it clear to all Jews -– and the rest of the world as well – that God included women at Sinai, that I stand with Women of the Wall, stand for the right of Jewish men and women to pray at the site of the Temple that represents for all Jews the locus of the direct connection to God in whatever manner they find appropriate, as long as they respect the rights of other Jews to do the same.