Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Shabbat Yitro

In this week’s sedra, Moses misquotes God. Our sages recognized the problem and “corrected” it in their way. Modern female scholars have added their own insights to enlarge and enrich our understanding.

When God Is Misquoted

I want to study with you this evening two passages in the Torah where God gets misquoted. The first occurs near the beginning of our Torah. The serpent says to Eve: “Did God really say you may not eat of any tree in the Garden?”

And Eve answers: “Of any tree in the Garden we may eat, but God said of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the Garden do not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.” (Gen. 3:3)

Now friends, God did not really say that. God said: “You may not eat of that tree.” God said nothing whatsoever about not touching it – that was Eve’s idea, not God’s. I don’t know why Eve misquoted God, perhaps because she only heard what God had said secondhand. God had spoken to Adam, Adam spoke to Eve and – in the process – perhaps God’s message got garbled.

You remember the game we used to play when we were kids when someone would whisper something to one person and that person would whisper it to the next person and by the time it got all the way around the room, it was totally different from what the first person said. Perhaps that is what happened with Eve.

Whatever the reason, the result was that Eve misquoted God. She said that they were not allowed to touch the fruit of that tree. So when the serpent touched it and nothing happened, she figured she could eat it too and nothing would happen. And that is how the exile from the Garden of Eden came about.

I guess the moral of this story is that you should be very careful when you quote anyone, and doubly careful when you quote God. For if you misquote God, bad things can happen.

Now let me share with you a second passage where God gets misquoted; it is in this week’s Torah portion. Many women take it as an insult, and many sensitive men are bothered by it too. This passage seems to say that God only cared about the men being ready to receive the Torah at Sinai, and that whether the women were ready or not was not considered important by God. The passage seems to say that when the Israelites stood at Sinai, at the holiest moment of their history, God considered the women who were there as unimportant and focused only on the men. Now let’s examine this passage and see if that is what it really says.

Exodus chapter 19, verse 5. The people have assembled in front of Mount Sinai. It is the formative moment in their lives, a moment for the sake of which they came out of Egypt. It’s the moment when they are going to be told that it is their destiny to become a mamlechet Kohanin, a kingdom of priests, v’goy kadosh and a holy people. It’s the moment when they wait for God to descend upon the Mount to establish an everlasting covenant with them. It’s the moment when they are to receive the Ten Fundamental Statements on which all of human civilization depends. So the Israelites are told they must prepare themselves, inwardly and outwardly, for this momentous occasion. How are they supposed to prepare themselves?

Moses turns to the people and says “be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman.”(19:15) What does that mean? Aren’t women people? Let’s grant for a moment the assumption of this passage that intimate relations make a person ritually unclean for three days. Even if that is so, couldn’t Moses have said ‘men and women shall not go near each other’? Instead, Moses makes it sound like the Torah is only being given to men and, therefore, it is important that the men be ritually pure when they receive it. Stating it this way makes it sound as if women don’t matter.

Imagine for a moment that you were a woman who was standing at the foot of Mount Sinai on that day and you heard those words – “Do not go near a woman.” Wouldn’t you feel as if this Torah is only meant for men and that you don’t count? And wouldn’t you feel that God is a male God who only speaks to and only cares about men? Wouldn’t you feel hurt and left out if you heard these words? I would.

Our Movement published a Women’s Commentary on the Torah in 2008; it’s a wonderful book which our Sisterhood members are using one Wednesday each month at noon to study the Torah. It enables readers to understand many passages in the Torah from a female point of view. In her commentary on these Exodus 19 verses, Dr. Judith Plaskow captures a nuance in the text which I had never noticed before. She urges us to look at this verse in the context of the whole chapter in which it appears and, if we do, we’ll notice that there is a difference between what God says and what Moses says God says.

In verses 10 and 11, God says “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 Adonai will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai.”

Notice that God speaks to the people, not just to the men. And notice that God says to be pure to all of them, not just to the men. So now let’s look again at verse 15. It reads: “And Moses said: do not go near a woman.” It is Moses, not God, who speaks only to the men. It is Moses who filters God’s word through a sexist, patriarchal lens. It is Moses, not God, who assumes that the instructions were only meant for half the Jewish people.

Now let’s not entirely blame Moses. No one – not even Moses – can ever repeat exactly what he or she has heard from another person. One seminary teacher used to say that revelation died on the lips of the speaker. What the listener hears is already midrash; there is no revelation without interpretation.

So if this is so, we ought not blame God for what Moses said in God’s name, just as we ought not blame God for what Eve says in God’s name. Eve meant no harm and Moses meant no harm, but they couldn’t help adding something of themselves when they tried to repeat what God had said. That is inevitable. If you don’t believe me, try repeating what someone else says to you and see how you end up by adding to or leaving out a nuance or two in what they said.

Dr. Plaskow teaches us that even the sages of the Talmud were sensitive to what Moses said. They were uncomfortable more than 1500 years ago with the passage which seems to say that women were only spectators at Sinai and that the Torah was only meant for men. So they found a way to modify the words of Moses, and this is how they did it. They noticed a redundancy in the text, and they used it to defend God from the way in which God had been misquoted by Moses.

In the preamble to the moment at Sinai (19:3) God says “so shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the Children of Israel.”

The sages ask: why do we need both these phrases – Bayt Yaakov, the house of Jacob; and B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel? Don’t they mean the same thing? And if so, isn’t this passage redundant? Which of course is an impossibility for the classical commentators to entertain.

The answer they give is that Bayt Yaakov referred to the women, and B’nai Yisrael referred to the men. So the sages teach that God told Moses to give the Torah first to the women and then to the men because, if the women accept the Torah, then it will be kept, since the women are the ones who are in charge of the home and they are the ones who educate the children.

Listen again to that midrash. God told Moses to give the Torah to the women first because, if they keep it, it will be kept; and if they don’t, then it won’t. How’s that for egalitarian thinking 1½ millennia ago? How is that for a God who cares equally about men and women? So we better be careful before we misquote God, for there are a host of women Torah scholars who will not let us get away with it.

The process of interpreting and re-interpreting the Torah has gone on in every generation since Sinai. What’s new in our time is that women now participate in studying and teaching the Torah – not just men. And this is true, incidentally, across the entire denominational board. Nehama Leibowitz was appointed to teach Torah at Rabbi Riskin’s yeshiva in Gush Etsion. When someone objected and said she should teach from behind a curtain, Orthodox Rabbi Riskin said “let anyone who is bothered by being taught Torah by such a knowledgeable woman go and sit behind the curtain.” He was not going to let her hide, for he knew she was one of the great Torah teachers of our time.

Sarah Schneider brought about a revolution in Jewish life in Poland when she created what she called a Beyt Yaakov school where women could study Torah, and she took the name from the midrash about Beyt Yaakov/ B’nai Yisrael in today’s Torah reading. And today there are Beyt Yaakov schools in many countries in Europe, as well as in America and Israel. The idea that there could be a network of schools where women could study and teach Torah was unheard of until Sarah Schneider came along. And today it is accepted as routine throughout the Orthodox Jewish world.

Our Reform Movement’s Women’s Torah Commentary is also a revolutionary work. It is composed of essays and poems and commentaries by more than 100 women who are rabbis and scholars. Even 25 years earlier such a book would not have been possible but, today thank God, we have hundreds of women who are knowledgeable in the Torah, committed to it, and who can discover new insights within it. These women demonstrate that the whole Jewish People – men and women – have a share in the Torah. They demonstrate that we were all together at Sinai and, therefore, we have much that we can learn from each other.

Let me conclude with a poem by Merle Feld entitled “We All Stood Together at Sinai.” I think it is the answer to the misunderstanding of God in this week’s sedra.

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 can’t —–
I’m always holding a baby,
one of my own,
or one for a friend,
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down.

And then
As time passes,
the particulars,
the hard data,
the who what when where why,
slip away from me,
and all I’m left with is
the feeling.

But feelings are just sounds
the vowel barking of a mute.

My brother is so sure of what he heard –
After all he’s got a record of it—-
Consonant after consonant after consonant.

If we could remember it together
we could recreate holy time
sparks flying.

I think we have an unusual opportunity awaiting us. We’re about to call a male and a female to be co-rabbis of Temple Israel. May we listen to and learn from the insights and perspectives of men and of women. Together may we come to appreciate even more of the many ways in which the Torah can be understood. For etz chyim hee l’machazikim ba, the Torah is a Tree of life to those who hold fast to it, v’tom’cheha m’ushar – and those who support it – females and males – are truly blessed. Amen.

I am indebted to Rabbi Jack Riemer for much of this message.