There has been so much tragedy, violence and pain in the news of late, it takes my breath away. The shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, innocent bystanders in someone else’s fight, leaving more than 300 families devastated; the beginning of the ground war in Gaza; the death of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and all that preceded the ground war. Sadness saturates the air, so much so that many of us have hardly been able to register the pain of two of the final US Supreme Court rulings: Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College, both of which said that religiously minded corporations could decide whether or not to cover their (female) employees’ contraception. But those decisions been weighing heavily on my mind. As the former director of two different women’s health clinics that provided birth control and women’s health services to low income women, I know the women whose family planning just got much more challenging. And as I prepared to write the drash for this week, with the Supreme Court hurting my heart, I was amazed and yet not amazed, that this week’s Torah portion is Matot, in one of the few years it stands alone, rather than being shared with Masei.
We can draw a direct line from Matot to Hobby Lobby, although we might have to go back even further—oh, say to Eve, and certainly we have many other points or stops along the way. But if Martin Luther King, Jr. was right, and the arc of the universe does bend toward justice, justice for women seems like it moves at a glacial speed – or whatever qualifies as very slow in cosmic time.
Last week, we read about Makhlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milchah and Tirtzah, the five sisters, the daughters of Zelophchad, at a moment when women stood up to the power structure and spoke words that changed the law and the course of history. Daughters without brothers could inherit land from their fathers.
They didn’t achieve full equality for women; after all, sisters, nieces, mothers—we still couldn’t inherit. If we had brothers, it would go to them. But they moved the arc a little closer toward justice. AND these five sisters began the process of changing laws to be more just, right there in the fourth book of the Torah.
But somehow, inevitably it feels, there was a backlash. Only three chapters later, we learn that women who make vows or assume obligations can, under particular circumstances, have them rescinded by their fathers or husbands… Our word is only our bond if the man around us approves, or silently stands by.
If we were women in a household, women who had nothing that was truly our own, we were at the mercy of the men. Makes my blood boil.
But, a short digression on the vows and obligations. Vows and obligations were not actually looked on with such favor by the rabbis. A vow—a neder—is really something that is frowned on – this actually brings us Kol Nidre, the legal contract that gets us off the hook for any vows we fail to deliver on over the coming year… the rabbis hated it, and had the music and magic not overwhelmed amcha, the people, the rest of us, the rabbis would have banned the prayer. But amcha, the people, won. A vow, according to the torah would be something like – if only my mother recovers, Holy One, I will never eat chocolate again. Or if my son gets into Harvard, I’ll come to shul every week. The obligation is the promise not to do something. I will not wear orange. Or, in Samson’s and other nazirites’ view, it could be, I’ll not drink wine or cut my hair for a specified period of time. It has to be something within halakha – laws. For example, you couldn’t promise to never eat shellfish, because you weren’t supposed to do that anyway. But these nedarim and obligations were always frowned upon, because—well, we aren’t supposed to bargain with God anyway, and really bad things could happen: there’s the story in the Book of Judges of Yiftach (Judges 11), who, before he leads us into battle, vows that if the Israelites win the battle, he will sacrifice the first thing or person that comes out of his house. We win and the first person out of his house is… his only daughter… whom he sacrifices.
On the other hand, in our Rosh Hashanah haftarah, Hannah vows that if God will give her a child, she will give him back to God, and indeed, when she weans Samuel, she brings him back to Shiloh and apprentices him to that model priest Eli. But she only gets to fulfill her vow because Elimelech, her husband, doesn’t object in a timely fashion (or at all).
So here we are back to the vows and obligations.
Numbers 30:4 If a woman makes a vow to the Holy One or assumes an obligation while still in her father’s household by reason of her youth, 5 and her father learns of her vow or her self-imposed obligation and offers no objection, all her vows shall stand and every self-imposed obligation shall stand. 6 But if her father restrains her on the day he finds out, none of her vows or self-imposed obligations shall stand; and the Ground of Being will forgive her, since her father restrained her.
7 If she should marry while her vow or the commitmentto which she bound herself is still in force, 8 and her husband learns of it and offers no objection on the day he finds out, her vows shall stand and her self-imposed obligations shall stand. 9 But if her husband restrains her on the day that he learns of it, he thereby annuls her vow which was in force or the commitmentto which she bound herself; and the Compassionate One will forgive her.—10 The vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, however, whatever she has imposed on herself, shall be binding upon her.
So this is about women still living with their fathers because of their youth (Rashi says girls 12 and a half)—and wives. Women who are unmarried and older, women who are unmarried through divorce and death – those women’s vows stand as their bond.
And the husband and father have to speak up in a timely manner. No changing their minds the next day or next week.
One commentary that (sort of) helped me, is that women in a household, on one hand, didn’t own anything of their own, so if they promised to offer God a cow or a goat or 30 shekels, it wasn’t theirs to give. They needed to figure out what was best for their whole household, recognize that their actions affected more than just themselves. (I can’t imagine they weren’t aware of this every day of their lives, but…) They had to pay attention, as we still pay attention—to the needs of the people around us, oftentimes putting them first, so often ahead of us. And this recognition that we can’t make a vow, or promise something, without making sure the head of the household agrees is a reminder of that.
But the arc of the universe still moved forward with this halakha—because there was, maybe for the first time, a recognition that some women—unmarried, not yet married, or formerly married women over a certain age can make a vow and be held to it the same as a man. And that the man had restrictions.
A small move forward, even within the backlash.
But let’s fast forward to the time of the rabbis. These leaders of our community, in the Mishnah, limited not only the time, but the range of what a husband could overrule in a wife’s vows: to vows likely to effect him directly or affect their marital relationship: whether she bathed, for example, or adorned herself (M. Nedarim 11:1). Another tiptoe forward.
But the rabbis also discussed the economic relationship between husband and wife. We find this, for example:
A woman’s finds and the work of her hands belong to her husband, and whatever she inherits, he “eats the fruits” [has legal rights to the use of her property] during her lifetime.(Mishnah Ketubot 6:1)
What she earns belongs to him. However, husbands have obligations too:
…he is obligated to [provide] her food sustenance [mezonoteha], and her ransom [if she is taken captive], and her burial. (M. Ketubot 4:4)
And they expand the requirement to provide her food sustenance, so that if she does not accept his help, she is permitted to use her own earnings to support herself (and the family).
However, do not relax quite yet: Professor Gail Labovitz notes, “the marital exchange of labor and maintenance should not be misunderstood as implying mutuality between the spouses.”
Meanwhile, these same rabbis rule that a woman, no matter how wealthy she is, must work productively, because idleness leads to lustfulness. (M. Ketubot 5:5)
And—there is the important quote from Hagadol, the great rabbi of his time, Rabbi Eliezer, who says: “Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah, it is as if he has taught her licentiousness [tiflut].” (M. Sotah 3:4)
This one comment alone continues to condemn many Orthodox women from studying our holiest texts.
Around the same time, the rabbis developed the halakhot around time-bound mitzvot, so that, in many but not all cases, women—and slaves—were exempt from requirements. This was another way to reinforce our lesser status, because a group exempted from halakhot is never as spiritually powerful as the group that is obligated.
We did not have to say the Shema or pray the three sets of daily prayers. We did not count in a minyan. And in some cases, we still do not.
Do you get the sense that the rabbis wanted to keep the learning, the keys to spiritual connection, to themselves? To have women and slaves work to allow them to live in the style they wanted, so that THEY could study? And that one of the tools to keep us in our place was to call our morality into question? Our putative licentiousness, our lustfulness?
Can you draw the line from that belief to Hobby Lobby?
Men still seek to control us and shame us, whether it is our bodies or our words or our financial security. Governments still control us. Religion still controls us. For example, just this week, the Israeli organization Chiddush is trying to dismantle the rabbinical court-ordered sex segregated bomb shelters in Ashdod, where men would be in a ‘safe room’ while women would be in a regular room.
I think the men, and the men in power (not all men, for sure), who seek to control us do so because they cannot imagine being able to control their own urges, so they try to control ours. And maybe that’s the fear that surrounds decisions like Hobby Lobby and Wheaton—men know their own weaknesses (just think of Samson and Delilah).
Just as the reason women are not supposed to be heard singing or we are supposed to sit in the back of the shul in Orthodox congregations, on the other side of the mechitzah during prayer – is because men might get distracted from holy thoughts, so do men consistently seek ways to control women because they cannot control themselves. We also see this in the way women are treated when they report rape: what was she wearing? Was she drinking or drunk?
I know you know what I am talking about. While our sacred texts come out of a context and often do move the arc of the universe that much closer to justice, too often they reflect what the state of the world is, rather than striking down the injustice.
In a rabbinic school class 5 years ago, when we were studying rabbinic period texts about women, every woman in the class had a story to tell: of the funeral a son wouldn’t allow the woman rabbinic student to officiate, although his mother had requested her; or the woman who was disinvited to teach at a congregation when it was learned she was a woman; and the cantorial student who could not sing at her own shul. Finally, one of the three men in the class, the father of daughters, asked, in a certain amount of anguish, “How can you all be here in rabbinic school when our tradition treats you this way?”
Because, while it is not our responsibility to complete the task, neither are we allowed not to take up the work. (Pirkei Avot 2:21.)
Because we can help move the arc forward, slowly and not so slowly.
Because although Jewish tradition is not perfect, it has so much to honor and learn from, and because it demands that we question, grow and tzedek tzedek tirdof – pursue justice, justice.
Because of the work our foremothers did for us—Sally Priesand, Amy Eilberg, starting our more than 40 years of women on the bima, incorporating the imahot, the matriarchs, into our liturgy, along with trying to offer us different images for the Holy Blessed One, or the Divine, or the energy…
Because of our foremothers who earned us the right to vote, and earned us the right to control our own bodies.
And because we have daughters and our community has daughters and we have to protect the rights and responsibilities that are in danger. We have to stand like the daughters of Zelophchad, the five sisters who stood up to the power structure.
Because we too want to answer our calling, to be close to the divine and learn and teach.
And because we know that we were created exactly as we were meant to be, we are all created in the image of the Divine.
 Gail Labovitz. The Scholarly Life—The Laboring Wife: Gender, Torah and the Family Economy in Rabbinic Culture. Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues; Spring 2007, Issue 13.