Feminist theologian, Dr. Judith Plaskow, famously begins her major work, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (1991) with the following words:
Entry into the covenant at Sinai is the root experience of Judaism, the central event that established the Jewish people. Given the importance of this event, there can be no verse in the Torah more disturbing to the feminist than Moses’ warning to his people in Exodus 19:15, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.” For here, at the very moment that the Jewish people stands at Sinai ready to receive the covenant – not now the covenant with individual patriarchs but with the people as a whole – at the very moment when Israel stands trembling waiting for God’s presence to descend upon the mountain, Moses addresses the community only as men. (p. 25)
The statement, “Do not approach a woman” (אל תגשו אל אשה) is, indeed, a shocking one. Let’s be clear, the Torah is emphatic that the entire people were present at Sinai and received the Torah. At each of the key moments, the Torah emphasizes that the entire people (כל העם) are involved. As Moshe descends the mountain and addresses the elders, the entire people respond, “All that God says, we will do.” As the time of Revelation approaches, the Torah states, “All the people that were in the camp trembled” (כל העם). Finally, as the Torah turns from the contents of Revelation to the people’s reaction to this intense experience, we are told once again, “The entire people saw.”
So if the Torah is clear that the entire people experienced Sinai, how are we to understand the statement: “Do not approach a woman?” These are not the words that God communicated to Moshe but rather Moshe’s own interpretation. God’s instructions were to prepare for 3 days in anticipation for God’s appearance to the entire people. Moshe went and spoke to those who would have normally gathered in the public square – the men – and adapted the message to this particular audience. As is often the case, we tailor our words to those immediately before us.
Standing Again at Sinai was highly influential for me. It demanded that I learn Torah through a personal lens, in this case, as a woman. Kabbalat HaTorah, the acceptance of the Torah, is not just a collective experience; we must accept Torah individually as well, in all our particulars. A life of Torah means that we take Torah seriously, approaching it with integrity and honesty. That might mean that a particular verse may be difficult or even painful at times. Full Kabbalat HaTorah requires us to be true to the Torah as dvar Hashem and to renew our relationship to Torah again and again, having our learning honestly reflect who we are and who we will become.
Wishing you a meaningful Kabbalat HaTorah.