In this week’s analysis, an examination of how to be more inclusive.
By Rabbi Shira Milgrom
VAYELECH | DEUTERONOMY 31:1-31:30
At the edge of the Promised Land, Moses convenes his people one last time, to draw them into the covenant between them and their God. This great gathering of the masses evokes the last great gathering, 40 years earlier, when the people of Israel were encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Then, in the Book of Exodus, God instructed Moses:
“Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes. … Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people, ‘Be ready for the third day; [the men among] you should not go near a woman.’ ”
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, added the (corrective!) phrase in brackets, “the men among.” The Hebrew reads simply, “You should not go near a woman.” This startlingly direct address to men calls into question who is being covenanted at Mt. Sinai. To whom is God (or Moses) speaking? It is possible to read this formative narrative of the Jewish people in a way in which only men are brought into the covenant, and indeed, many still do.
Deuteronomy, however, offers a different read:
“You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God — you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; in order to establish you this day as God’s people and in order to be your God, as promised you and as sworn to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
The text says, “all of you!” You might wonder, does it matter which way we tell the story? After all, we in progressive religious communities already inhabit an egalitarian world. I learned 30 years ago from my youngest child to what extent the story makes a difference. Liore was then 3 years old, and my husband was giving her a bath. Out of the blue she said to David, “Abba, God likes boys better than girls.”
Had I been there, I’m sure I would have immediately jumped in and said, “Oh no, sweetheart, that is not true!”
My husband was wiser. “What makes you say that?” he asked.
Her answer was that God has boy parts, so God likes boys better.
For all of us who think that describing God as “He” doesn’t really mean “He,” think again. But even more important than learning the power of the pronoun, I learned from Liore that the way we imagine God, or imagine ourselves within our sacred stories, profoundly impacts how we see ourselves. Because Liore imagined God as male, she imagined that in some cosmic way she was worth less in the universe.
Stories matter. Our Torah gives us a clear, moving, and eloquent reread of who is included in this covenant — all of us — young and old, rich and poor, male and female. “You stand this day, all of you.”
Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in New York, part of a unique rabbinic partnership of two co-senior rabbis. She is the author of articles about Jewish spirituality, education, healing and women in Judaism, and is the editor of a unique siddur used now for two decades in settings across the continent. A version of this article first appeared at reformjudaism.org.