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Rabbi Amy's Sermon On the Occasion of Sisterhood Shabbat February 2, 2018/5778

02/16/2018 02:20:48 PM


Rabbi Amy Sapowith

What an attractive force sisterhood is! Look how it has brought you out this evening to be in one another’s company. There is an energy of camaraderie and a recognition that the women of BCRC share an identity, a heritage, as well as interests and concerns. And we’re not here at a restaurant or even someone’s living room—that’s for another day. We initiate, resurrect, restart our Sisterhood here in our sanctuary, before our ark and our Torahs—a recognition that this is where it all begins.

It couldn’t be more perfect, really. Usually women-centered celebrations take place last week in our Torah reading cycle on Shabbat shira—when our prophet Miriam leads the Israelites in song and dance after their safe escape from Egypt. But this week, parashat Yitro, is the week that we actually receive the Ten Commandments. This is the week that all Israel stood at the base of Mt. Sinai, some fearful, others awestruck. This is the week that our unity as a people is established. It is the foundational experience where truth is revealed for our people to hear and accept. And leading up to this experience something significant, yet disturbing happens.

God calls Moses to come up the mountain so he can receive some preliminary instructions before the big reveal. There, Moses is instructed that the Israelites should take three days to prepare for the revelation. They shuld take three days to clean up, to purify themselves, to meditate, pray, apply essential oils—do what it took to prepare for a life changing revelation. Come the third day, God specifically warns against coming near the base of the mountain. Hishamru l’chem alote behar u’n’go’ah b’katzayhu. Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it (Ex 19:12). In other words, everyone stand back!

But what does Moses actually relay to the people? “Hehyu n’chonim l’shloshet yamim al tigshu el isha. Be ready for the third day: you should not go near a woman” (19:15). What? From God’s mouth to Moses’ mouth to our ears, “beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it” becomes “you should not go near a woman.” In this heterosexual world, to whom then is Moses speaking, warning against going near a woman, except to men? And in that moment women were swept off the stage; they went from present to absent, disappeared from the experience at Sinai. Where were they? Did they stay back at the tents? But more importantly, Why was Moses not faithful to what was clearly expressed as God’s command? How does: :everyone, don’t go near the mountain” become “hey guys, don’t go near a woman”?

In a class I took while on sabbatical in Israel seven years ago, the orthodox scholar Rachel Bercovits taught a class called Women and Mitzvot. She surveyed eight different topics and analyzed Jewish law on each of them to see whether and why women were excluded. Her conclusion was that more often than not, the social mores of the times not Jewish sources per se were responsible for women’s exclusions. In other words, even when the majority of the rabbinic commentary would justify women’s participation in a mitzvah, the minority dissenting opinion was the one to become law. What else could explain this but the social pressure of the society at large? Is the precedent for this bias right here in our verse? Was Moses just doing the same? Did he take it upon himself to speak in the language that he thought his people could hear, or wanted to hear? The language of male inclusion that prevailed at that time, and which continues to prevail, though with many hard won and celebrated advances?

In her book Standing Again at Sinai, a groundbreaking study in the area of Jewish feminist studies published in 1990, Judith Plaskow brings us back to this foundational moment, literally calling us to stand again at Mt. Sinai, but this time, acknowledging without hesitation or apology, the women in the crowd who have the right, privilege and obligation to be included in and to shape every aspect of our tradition—as God, not Moses, originally intended. Through the hard work of women and men over the past 28 years, Stacy and I as well as former BCRC rabbis and presidents, stand before you as testaments to how far this movement has come—at least in our corner of liberal Judaism. And how appropriate that we have the reaffirmation of our BCRC sisterhood be celebrated against this backdrop.

And there is the more sober yet equally liberating backdrop of the #Metoo movement. Here we are experiencing the power of sisterhood on a broader scale to use our voices, perhaps at personal risk, in the service of a vision, a vision of freedom from sexual harassment. A national expression of Sisterhood that has emboldened women, young and old, Olympic medalists and actresses, congressional staffers and officemates, academics and even rabbis to muster enough courage to reveal their pain, to throw off and hopefully radically transform one of the most long-lived and ubiquitous forms of gender oppression into a greater respect for the full personhood of girls, women and even female-identified men. This movement, like women’s suffrage, like the civil rights movement, may be inaugurating a radical change in human self-awareness that brings us all, in fits and starts, thunderous revelations and lightning charges, one step closer to the Promised Land.

Now, you may or may not feel the rekindling of the BCRC sisterhood fires warrants the thunder and lightning and the grandeur that accompanies the giving of the Torah or the political gravity of the #metoo movement. A wine and dessert oneg will do. But our own consciousness as Jewish women can’t help but be informed by all these past advances and contemporary struggles that continue to impact the way we see ourselves, what we can expect of ourselves, and the ways we relate to one another. And there is grandeur in that.

Keyn y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will. Shabbat shalom.

Tue, August 4 2020 14 Av 5780