Every year on Shavuot, the story of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai is read in synagogues around the world. It’s a dramatic story, with thunder and lightning and mysterious ram’s horns blasting, and Moses disappearing into a thick cloud. It’s a powerful story. It’s also a problematic story, for me. As a feminist, ascribing divinity to an ancient text with a vision of women/gender that is very far from my own doesn’t work for me. And yet, as a scholar and midrashist who often plays with the words of the biblical text, I do meet God/dess and my ancestors there. I’m moved by the ancient legend that all Jewish souls, of every time and place, were present to receive Torah at Sinai. How to express this layered and complex relationship with Torah?
The Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute has been holding Shabbat prayer online since the pandemic began, and we gathered on Shavuot morning to pray. As a community committed to the liberation of all genders, I felt we couldn’t read the Torah portion the way it was—but I also felt we couldn’t not read it. So I created an aliyah—a Torah reading—composed of fragments of the text. Three of us read it together; I chanted the Hebrew, and Kohenet Ketzirah Lesser and Kohenet Harriette Wimms and I read the English. I picked fragments of the text that spoke to me in some way.
The aliyah translated each “fragment” of the text in three different ways, playing with the polysemy of the text and creating a sense of multiple meanings. This is consistent with the Jewish way of reading sacred text, in which multiple interpretations are always possible. And, this multilayered translation allowed me to get at some “countertexts”—ways of seeing the story differently, new angles on revelation.
For example, the word Sinai can come from a word that means “clay” or “earth,” so I asked myself: what would it mean if the whole earth were our mountain of revelation? The word for wilderness or desert is midbar, which can also mean “place that speaks.” What if we thought of the wilderness of Sinai as the place in us that speaks?
The phrase betachtit hahar means “at the foot of the mountain,” but can also be understood as “under the mountain,” and in other Hebrew sources, tachtit can mean “underworld.” What if we received our revelation in the underworld?
The phrase har sinai ashan kulo—“Mount Sinai was all in smoke”— is understood by mystics to mean “Mount Sinai was at the junction of space, time and soul.” In this reading, the word ashan, smoke, is an acronym for olam/world/space, shanah/year/time, and nefesh/soul/body. I also thought about smoke as something non-solid, as our reality is ephemeral and not solid.
The word anochi, “I,” according to some etymologies, combines the Hebrew “I” (ani) with the word “here” (ko). How might we understand the “I” of the Ten Commandments to be “hereness”? What would that do to our sense of knowing? In the text, God “takes out” the people from Egypt. If we understand “brings out” to mean “birthed,” how does our image of the story change?
And, the story tells that the people “saw the thunder and lightning.” This sentence contains the phrase ro’im et hakolot; the people “saw the voices.” Or, more literally, they “are seeing the voices.” What voices do we need to see? From a feminist angle, what voices need to become visible within our sacred stories and practices?
After we read/chanted the poem, Kohenet Keshira haLev Fife invited each person present to type into the chat what their revelation had been in the past year. It was so powerful to receive Torah from one another. And I have to confess, this was one of the more meaningful Shavuot Torah readings I have experienced. Maybe that’s because, in the end, we can only touch the truth in fragments.
Fragments of the Sinai Revelation
בָּ֖אוּ מִדְבַּ֥ר סִינָֽי׃
they came to the wilderness of Sinai
they arrived in the wilderness of the earth
they came to the place that speaks
In front of the mountain
against the mountain
corresponding to the mountain
וַיְהִי֩ קֹלֹ֨ת וּבְרָקִ֜ים וְעָנָ֤ן כָּבֵד֙ עַל־הָהָ֔ר וְקֹ֥ל שֹׁפָ֖ר חָזָ֣ק מְאֹ֑ד
there were thunders and lightnings
there were voices and brightness
and a thick cloud
a cloud of Presence
on the mountain
and the voice of a shofar
וַיִּֽתְיַצְּב֖וּ בְּתַחְתִּ֥ית הָהָֽר׃
and they stood at the foot of the mountain
they placed themselves under the mountain
they took their places in the depth beneath the mountain
וְהַ֤ר סִינַי֙ עָשַׁ֣ן כֻּלּ֔וֹ
Mount Sinai was wreathed in smoke
Mount Sinai reached through all space and time
The mountain of earth was entirely ephemeral
וְהָאֱלֹהִ֖ים יַעֲנֶ֥נּוּ בְקֽוֹל
answered in a voice
the one who is here
took you out
וְעֹ֥֤שֶׂה חֶ֖֙סֶד֙ לַאֲלָפִ֑֔ים
do kindness for generations
make love with multitudes
shape generosity for diverse beings
אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת־הַיָּם֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֔ם
the sky and the earth and the sea and all within it
לְמַ֙עַן֙ יַאֲרִכ֣וּן יָמֶ֔יךָ עַ֚ל הָאֲדָמָ֔ה
that you may extend your days upon earth
that your time on the planet may be long
that each moment you dwell here may count
וְכָל־הָעָם֩ רֹאִ֨ים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹ֜ת
and all the people witnessed the thunder
everyone took in the revelation
all the beings can still know these voices
נִגַּ֣שׁ אֶל־הָֽעֲרָפֶ֔ל אֲשֶׁר־שָׁ֖ם הָאֱלֹהִֽים׃
can touch the mystery
can enter the cloud
can approach the thick darkness
in which Goddess dwells
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion. She is the author ofThe Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for all Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (with Taya Shere), Siddur haKohanot: A Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook (with Taya Shere) andThe Book of Earth and Other Mysteries. Her forthcoming book is titledReturn to the Place: The Magic, Meditation., and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah. She is a poet, scholar, ritualist, dreamworker, midrashist, and essayist.