Coming up to Shavuot, let us look at one tiny detail of the Rabbinical understanding of Z’man Matan Torahteinu, the actual event of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. One little detail which, as it were, was lying there in the tradition and only in much more recent times has it had significant impact. This is an interesting dimension of the understanding of the event, and also one that explains something very important that’s happened to Judaism in the past century.
Before God could reveal the Torah to Israel at Mt. Sinai, Moshe had to propose the covenant to the Israelites, and only after their acceptance could Matan Torah proceed:
The end of the third verse contains a tautology, or double language. Why is the same idea repeated twice, in different words? Rabbinic tradition examines this repetition:
This early Midrash, which comes from the same time as the Mishnah, claims that God told Moses to first give the Torah to the women, before giving it to the men.
But why do the Rabbis say this? They didn't have to make this argument. Another Midrashic tradition explains:
There are three ideas presented: The first is that women are more punctilious about mitzvot. Alternatively, perhaps it is because women are enablers, and will bring their children to study Torah. Finally, a third opinion explains that the first commandment ever was given to a man, and it was a woman who transgressed. This time, God gives the mitzvot to women first, to ensure that they are on board.
While these three opinions differ greatly on reasoning, there is no doubt presented in this Midrashic tradition about the fact that women received the Torah first. Yet the legal tradition does not pick up on this Midrash.
For the better part of 2,000 years, women were not given the same Torah education as men. This was how Torah learning Judaism functioned practically speaking until 1917:
Pictured here is the second graduating class of the Bais Ya'akov in Lodz, Poland, in 1934.
Institution/Owner: Yehudis Bobker, Sydney, Australia.
In 1917, Sarah Schenirer founded the first Bais Ya'akov school for women, and she named it after this verse that we have been examining.
Since then, women have risen in the ranks of Torah scholars. The Belzer Rebbe, a great Chasidic leader, and the Chofetz Chaim, the major Torah scholar of his generation, both blessed this endeavor. After World War II, in America, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and the Lubavitcher rebbe promoted the role of women as students of Torah and teachers of Torah.
This was truly a revolution. From this revolution came thousands of new Torah teachers and hundreds of thousands of new Torah learners. And this revolution happened in part through permission granted by the Gedolei Hador, the greatest rabbis of the generation, because they had the support and groundwork of the Midrashic tradition.
What did these rabbis see to make them overturn generations of tradition that excluded women? The answer is: This midrash, which was an underutilized force until this revoluation took place.
But why is this Midrash so insistent on the idea that women were offered the Torah before the men? What is special about the women's voice in Torah?
Compare these two places in Tanakh where Torah is discussed in conjunction with an abstract ethical term. The first is from the book of Malachi, the last of the prophets:
This verse speak of men, but the second source, from the book of Proverbs, is about women:
If male-centric Torah is of "Emet" and female-centric torah is of "Chesed" now consider in the Torah what happens when those two values appear next to one another:
In the verse above, Abraham's servant is praying that he find an appropriate wife for his master's son, and praises God for God's "chesed" and "emet" - kindness, and then truth.
When Jacob is about to encounter his brother Esau, and prays for God's assistance, he says that he is unworthy of both the chesed, kindness, and the emet, the truth or steadfastness, that God has shown.
Finally, in this speech, known as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which God shares with Moses, kindness is mentioned first, followed by "truth" or "faithfulness."
In Torah it seems "Chesed" always comes before, and takes precedence over "Emet." This is why women's Torah must come first. All along it seems there should have been more than the Torah of Emet. Only now it seems are we able to learn Torah as it should have been all along, as expressed in these verses that tell us that at Mt. Sinai, God chose to give the Torah to the women first, before the men.