There is perhaps no verse in the Torah more disturbing to the feminist than Moses’ warning to his people in Exodus 19:15, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.” For here, at the very moment that the Jewish people stand at Mount Sinai ready to enter into the covenant—not now the covenant with the individual patriarchs but presumably with the people as a whole—Moses addresses the community only as men. The specific issue is ritual impurity: an emission of semen renders both a man and his female partner temporarily unfit to approach the sacred (Leviticus 15:16-18). But Moses does not say, “Men and women do not go near each other.” At the central moment of Jewish history, women are invisible. It was not their experience that interested the chronicler or that informed and shaped the text.

This verse sets...

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