The Bible Says What? ‘Moses instructs men and women to be segregated’

The Bible Says What? ‘Moses instructs men and women to be segregated’

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein looks at a controversial topic in the Torah and applies a Liberal Jewish response

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law
Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law

 And Moses said to the people: “Be ready for the third day: do not go near [i.e. have sex with] a woman” (Exodus 19:15)

With these words, Moses gives an instruction only to the Israelite men. And indeed it is one that segregates them from women. Such gender inequality has since been perpetrated for millennia in Judaism.

Rabbi Julie Gordon sees Moses’ words as a continuation of his father-in-law Jethro’s bias, who had advised him to seek “trustworthy men” from the people to be judges and leaders.

She asks: “Why didn’t Jethro consider women as capable leaders? Miriam, for example, is described a few chapters before as a prophet. Jethro’s own daughter, Moses’ wife Tzipporah, had shown decisive action in the desert when she circumcised her and Moses’ son. Furthermore, why did Moses accept Jethro’s implicit negation of women as leaders?”

For all those who defend today’s segregation of men and women, we need only look back just a few lines further in Exodus to see that this was not God’s actual intention.

At arguably the pivotal moment of our ancient Israelite ancestors and our Jewish narrative, Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah at Sinai), God addresses the people with full gender equality. Revelation was for all.

God calls the Israelites with no differentiation a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), and the people as a whole respond: “All the Eternal has spoken, we will do” (19:8).

It is this that Liberal Judaism holds close. Women have always had full equality and held leadership positions – from our founder Lily Montagu, to today’s pioneering women clergy, who make up half of our Conference of Liberal Rabbis and Cantors.

The revelation for us is Judaism is about integration, not segregation.

  • Aaron Goldstein is Senior Rabbi of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Shul
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