Who stands at Sinai?

Who stands at Sinai?

“Anne, are women part of the covenant?” a student asked early in the first semester the first time I led a seminar on the Jewish lifecycle for first-year rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

My visceral reaction cannot be printed in a family paper, but as a longtime teacher, I knew better than to go with that. Instead I turned the question back to the group. To my unexhibited surprise, a number of students questioned the basis for women’s inclusion. What texts demonstrate that women were part of the people Israel’s special relationship with God?

It was the fall of 1999. I had naively assumed that the war was over: women had been admitted to JTS’s rabbinical school 15 years earlier. In my immediate circle – my daughter, my sister, myself – we assumed that Jewish women had the same rights and responsibilities as men. There were – and still are – some outposts in Masorti/Conservative Judaism where this is not the case, but there were not a lot of them even then. Why raise the question?

Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah, marks a “covenant experience.” Really, it is the covenant experience, because, unlike God’s previous promises to the patriarchs, it involves the whole people Israel.

Or does it?

God tells Moses how the people should prepare for God’s descent onto Mount Sinai: “Go to the people and warn 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). There it is, completely clear, God wants “kol ha’am” – “all the people” – to prepare. Logically, then, the covenant is with all the people – women and men, young and old.

But it turns out to be not so simple. In relaying God’s words to the people, Moses changes them. “Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people, ‘Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman'” (Exodus 19: 14-15). Moses says “ha’am” – “the people,” not “kol-ha’am” – “all the people.”

Even more striking is his addition: “Do not go near a woman.” In other words, Moses was speaking only to the men. So where were the women? Were they not present at Sinai? Are Jewish women part of the covenant? Are they bound by the same commandments that bind Jewish men? If their responsibilities and rights are different, are they equal? Can separate be equal?

These are topics that continue to exercise the Jewish community in many ways. Just a month ago the Masorti/Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards addressed the issue and came to an unequivocal conclusion. The question posed is: “Are Jewish women responsible for observing the mitzvot from which they traditionally have been exempted?” The response is a strongly argued and wide-ranging teshuvah (rabbinic responsum) written by Rabbi Pamela Barmash, associate professor of Hebrew Bible and biblical Hebrew at Washington University in St. Louis. Her conclusion is that the exemption of women from fulfilling many of the commandments was based on their subordinate status. Women are no longer considered subordinate in the Jewish community. Therefore women are obligated just as men are, except when anatomy intervenes. Therefore, synagogues and schools should educate and encourage women of all ages to acknowledge their commandedness and begin or expand their acceptance of mitzvot [commandments] from which they traditionally have been excluded.

The overwhelming acceptance of Rabbi Barmash’s argument is reflected in the fact that 15 members of the CJLS voted in favor; there were three abstentions and three negative votes. (To read the full teshuvah, google “Rabbi Pamela Barmash” and “Women and Mitzvot.”)

When we think about the breadth of the question, some major underlying issues come to the fore. Although they cannot be explored in depth in the scope of this column, they are worth considering.

First, Hebrew is a gendered language – and it’s binary. Every noun, adjective, and verb is either masculine or feminine. The masculine plural is used for groups that include men and women. Thus there is no real equivalent to the English “person.” The closest Hebrew can get is adam, a masculine noun that variously means male, human, or Adam. We might also try ben-adam, which compounds the issue by adding ben (son of). Masculine is the default choice, so when, for example, we say the Shema and encounter the word ve’ahavta – and you shall love – the text does not reveal whether that singular masculine verb requires only men to love God or whether women are similarly enjoined. It is hard to determine whether a particular mitzvah applies to men or both women and men based on the biblical text.

Second, at least since the time of the Mishnah, which was edited by the mid-third century C.E., women theoretically have been exempted from a category of mitzvot that require someone to perform an action at a specific time. These mitzvoth often are referred to as time-bound positive commandments. For the purposes of this column, suffice it to say that the reasons for this exemption are somewhat elusive. Rabbi Barmash argues that the issue was women’s subordinate social standing. Further, there are positive time-bound commandments that clearly do apply to women, including Shabbat and holiday candle lighting. Whatever the reason, no matter how porous the category, the net result is that women, because they traditionally have not been commanded to perform these mitzvot, often have been barred from performing them.

Perhaps for us, as early 21st century Jews, the most puzzling piece is the principle: “Greater [is the merit of] the one who is commanded [to perform a mitzvah] and does so than [the merit of] one who is not commanded yet performs [it].” In many ways that is counterintuitive for us. Isn’t the person who puts on a tallit out of a personal desire to be enfolded in this symbol of God’s embrace worthy of more praise than someone who does so just because s/he is ordered or commanded to do so? Jewish tradition says no, that fulfilling divine commandments acknowledges the Command-er, God, as the source of the commandment. Living a life shaped or defined by sacred commandments is the ultimate goal. Thus, if a woman is not commanded to fulfill a mitzvah, her mitzvah lacks something.

Bottom line: Rabbi Barmash’s teshuvah changes the basis of women’s commandedness from “opt in” to “opt out.” Whereas previously a woman might, according to the tightly argued and widely accepted teshuvah by my friend and colleague Rabbi Joel Roth, voluntarily accept a hiyyuv, an obligation, to fulfill one or more of the commandments from which women have traditionally been exempted, Rabbi Barmash’s teshuvah maintains that women today are obligated to fulfill all the commandments, which they, like men, can decide whether or not to act on. Thus, just as there are many Jewish men, obligated to pray daily in a tallit and, except on Shabbat and holidays, in tefillin, choose not to do so, the same will obtain for women.

This decision makes little difference in my daily life; I had long since been convinced by Rabbi Roth’s teshuvah to opt in and accept the obligation to perform these commandments, even before I started actually doing so on a regular, daily basis. In the course of time, however, I had rethought the issues and concluded, without the brilliance and thoroughness of Rabbi Barmash’s teshuvah, that Jewish women are inherently commanded. After all, Genesis 1:27 records that God created an adam, a human, an earthling, both male and female, without hierarchy. Further, most compellingly, the text of the opening verses of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), for example, moves from requiring the acknowledgement of God’s uniqueness and our love of God directly – both clearly incumbent on men and women – to enjoining teaching God’s commandments and binding them on our hands and foreheads. All of the second-person references are in the masculine singular. It is illogical to assume that the former two are required of women and men and the latter only of men.

Rabbi Barmash’s teshuvah provides a legal and conceptual basis for equalizing the commandedness of women and men, while also acknowledging both that there has to be an exception for caregivers, male or female, of the young, the sick, and the elderly, and that it will take some time for women raised without these expectations to adjust to them.

Rereading the biblical description of what happened at Sinai, I would suggest that God intended that the full covenant include both women and men. Moses, as he often did, modified God’s words. I don’t pretend to know why. Perhaps Moses, grounded in the realities of the exodus journey, felt that God’s will was aspirational, unrealistic. This Shavuot we finally may have come to the point when we are ready to take on the full meaning of the Sinai experience, one that embraces all of the people Israel.