This week’s Torah portion begins with a powerful exchange between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro. It then describes the preparation necessary before Moses would be permitted to ascend Mt. Sinai and receive the Ten Commandments.
וַיֵּ֧רֶד מֹשֶׁ֛ה מִן־הָהָ֖ר אֶל־הָעָ֑ם וַיְקַדֵּשׁ֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וַֽיְכַבְּס֖וּ שִׂמְלֹתָֽם׃
Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes.
Through Moses God tells the Israelites to purify themselves.
He tells them to wash their clothes.
He instructs them to stand at the base of the mountain.
He warns them against touching the mountain lest they incur punishment.
But then he says this…
וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־הָעָ֔ם הֱי֥וּ נְכֹנִ֖ים לִשְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים אַֽל־תִּגְּשׁ֖וּ אֶל־אִשָּֽׁה׃
And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman.”
Under any circumstance, this would be a jarring statement but its presence here, at exactly the moment when the people are readying themselves to receive Torah and enter into the covenant, is offensive.
And one might ask, “Why don’t we get rid of a statement as misogynistic as this one? Why don’t we just edit it out?”
The obvious, practical answer is that our text is canonized and therefore cannot be changed. Like the US Constitution, it can be interpreted and expanded (eg Constitutional Amendments) but the actual text remains exactly the same generation after generation.
The less obvious, but I believe a more relevant, answer is… the struggle.
Including this text, as ugly and as sexist as it is, forces us to confront our sexist past and struggle with it.
It invites a conversation about the fact that women’s voices were not valued in our tradition until quite recently. Even today women’s voices are often not given the same weight as their male counterparts.
It reminds us that women were not allowed to serve as Jewish clergy until the 1970s.
Even today, rabbis and cantors who are women encounter bias that manifests in ways both overt and subtle.
And it helps open our eyes to the fact that, even in the most egalitarian of communities, there is often latent, if not overt, sexism.
When we encounter statements such as the warning to “not go near a woman” we are forced to see who we were and, unfortunately, often still are. And it is only by having the difficult conversations that emerge from confronting our past, as difficult and as painful as they may be, that we can grow. It is counterintuitive but running from issues in our past often results in our remaining stuck in the past. Embracing the mistakes, shortcomings, and biases of our past and then learning from them can be painful but the learning and growth that results can help us grow into the people, and the community, we want to be.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen