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February 2, 2018 by

Why This Week’s Parsha Is Devastating For Women—And What Can Be Done About It

The Torah portion we read this coming Shabbat starts with the story of Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, giving him some tips about refining his leadership model, delegating, becoming more effective in his leadership.

Then, fast-forward. The people Israel are waiting at the base of Mt. Sinai, while God gives instructions to Moses. God tells Moses to קדש the people—to make them holy, sanctified, set-apart.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֙ לֵ֣ךְ אֶל־הָעָ֔ם וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֥ם הַיּ֖וֹם וּמָחָ֑ר וְכִבְּס֖וּ שִׂמְלֹתָֽם׃

“God said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and make-holy them today and tomorrow. They should wash their clothes.’”

It’s clear from the verb that Moses needs to do a thing to them. So then Moses goes back, and he does it! He קדש them. Sanctifies, makes holy, sets apart, something. It’s still not clear what the action is, but he does it. And, as instructed, laundry happens.

וַיֵּ֧רֶד מֹשֶׁ֛ה מִן־הָהָ֖ר אֶל־הָעָ֑ם וַיְקַדֵּשׁ֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וַֽיְכַבְּס֖וּ שִׂמְלֹתָֽם׃

“Moses came down from the mountain to the people and made-holy them, and they washed their clothes.”

And then—he keeps talking.

“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.’”

“Don’t go near a woman.”

God didn’t say that.

Suddenly, Moses is only addressing men. Women have gone from being subjects—part of the people—to objects. Who are sexual temptations who must be avoided.

In one sentence, Moses simultaneously cuts women out of Revelation and turns them into sexual objects. Judith Plaskow refers to this as “one of the most painful verses in the Torah,” for good reason.

Women aren’t the ones being told to prepare for Torah, here, after all. They’re just a problem. They are literally the object and not the subject of the sentence, suddenly.

Traditional commentators make sense of all this by suggesting that קדש is a command for Israel to attain a state of ritual elevation/purity, akin to where they must be to offer sacrifices in the Temple. Since seminal ejaculation would imperil that status, that’s what God meant.

Only problem is that קדש is not that state. We have a word for that. טהר.

Moses inserted his human baggage into his command from God. His ideas about gender and power and hierarchy and who matters and sex and whatever else. He twisted a command from the Holy One to suit his agenda.

And this happens when Moses is fresh from his new, improved, more egalitarian leadership model! He does great violence to God’s command, which involved serving and care for his entire community, valuing all of its members (whether, maybe, they’re entry level or major donors.) Sometimes revolutions in leadership aren’t very revolutionary at all. 

The commentators who could have pounced on the discrepancy (they’re very good at that) instead did the same thing. They saw something fishy but it suited their ideas about gender and power so they explained it away. Excused it. Rationalized it and ignored its impact on women. Like so many people in positions of power or leadership today, they ignored, minimized, explained away this violence in service to the leadership, the structures. The organization’s reputation, if you will.

Interestingly, a lot of the English translations of קדש—root words in these verses go with “warn the people to stay pure” and the like—reading back in the concern with ritual impurity that doesn’t exist in the plain meaning of the text into the translation. Even people translating now have to make decisions about whether they uphold or challenge Moses’ imposition into the text—and many of them choose to uphold it.

As it happens, we see קדש come up, most notably in the Holiness Code, the metaphoric and literal heart of the Torah—chiastic structure points us right here—is explicitly not about ritual purity. Rather:

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

“Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, God your God, am holy.”

And what is the Holiness Code about? Mostly social justice and preventing sexual abuse.

You can’t make this stuff up.

This makes it clearer even still that when God asked Moses to קדש the community, to make-holy them, it was about the whole community, in its fullness, safety, created-in-the-Divine-image-ness.

For I your God am holy.

We need to do work that is no less than to go back to the base of Sinai and re-receive Torah anew. This time with God’s intended meaning—in a way that sanctifies every single one of us. All of us together.

We shall be holy, for God is holy.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.