All the Vows
July 27, 2005
Because I'm leading Shabbat morning services again this week, I get to spend today preparing to read and teach Torah. Though I'm mildly frustrated to discover that I can't translate this portion on-the-fly like I did a few weeks ago, I'm still having fun learning it. We're doing the very beginning of parashat Mattot, the part about the vows of men and the vows of women and how binding each kind of vow ought to be. (That's Numbers 30:2-17, in case you were wondering -- translated here.)
Here's the nutshell version: if a woman is young enough to be living in her father's house, then he has control over her speech; if a woman is old enough to be married, then her husband has control over her speech. Her vows only stand if the men in her life permit; only if she becomes a widow or a divorcée can her word stand as firm as that of a man.
On the one hand, this looks like a clear case of women being considered property. However ordinary that might have been in antiquity, it clashes with my feminist sense of egalitarianism. To me the truths that women are not property -- that our voices are as valid as those of men -- that we have the right and the obligation to define our commitments for ourselves -- are entirely self-evident. On the proverbial other hand, I'm not willing to scrap this passage of Torah. So how can I wrestle with it productively?
Many commentors explore the nuances of the Hebrew words that refer
to the kinds of promises people make. Rabbi Jonathan Kraus cites Jacob Milgrom
that "in making oaths (sh'vuot), one either
asserts that something is true (e.g., an oath of innocence) or
promises to undertake an obligation....By contrast, vows (nedarim)
are conditional promises to dedicate something (or someone!) to the
sanctuary." Interesting, and I wonder what a neder might be now
that there's no Temple to dedicate ourselves to -- but it doesn't
really help me with my question.
Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman (in this week's Torat Chayim) makes a compelling argument that this passage has merit because it encourages us to think about the circumstances in which we might release ourselves from vows:
Vows are as significant and sacred as they are precisely because the prospect of embracing or offering constancy amidst change touches on longings we all share for more constancy-and less change. But when unforeseen circumstances arise, letting go of a vow does not constitute betrayal. If engaged in thoughtfully, it may actually be a process that can usher us into growth, into new and better ways of being.
In just over two months, Jewish communities worldwide will gather once again to hear the ancient words of Kol Nidrei. It is one of the most resonant moments we know in terms of our collective rituals; with it, in the presence of God and each other, we let go of the year's old vows. Then we stand for long moments, stripped bare of pretenses, in community, solemnity, and hope that the new vows we strive for will be ones that bring us more deeply into our lives. We pray for vows that will allow us to access our best and truest selves...
As I write this, erev Yom Kippur is eleven weeks away. I don't usually start thinking about the Days of Awe until the month of Elul begins, so maybe it's good that this Torah portion reminds me to consider the promises I make to myself, to others, and to God. In that sense, the portion is useful even if it's difficult, because it gets me thinking about important issues.
Still, even looking ahead to Kol Nidre brings me back to my frustration with this portion. The very fact that I stand with my kahal, my community, on erev Yom Kippur to chant with them implies my active participation in that community. My word carries weight, and no one else has the power to annul that word. So what gives? How can I reconcile my beliefs with my text?
Here's the best answer I've got: At its heart, this text implies that people tasked with caring for those who are vulnerable have the sacred obligation of helping those under their care to make safe and healthy commitments and promises.
Though we may reject the assumption that men are necessarily powerful and women are necessarily vulnerable, it is incumbent upon those in power to help protect those they care for. A parent who lets her child succumb to the seduction of a cult, or a mentor who lets his acolyte's self-worth hinge on an impossible promise: these are role models who are not living up to their role. And in the verse about widows and divorced women -- in our paradigm, people who have some life-experience under their belts -- we see evidence that Torah understands that those who start out vulnerable can become empowered, able to make wise decisions about their commitments.
As Louis Simpson writes in "Profession of Faith," "It is the words we use, finally,/ that matter, if anything does." Torah acknowledges that our words matter...which is why it takes such care to ensure a protection mechanism for those whom society disempowers, so they won't bind themselves with words which might come back to harm them. That core teaching is valuable for us, even if we find Torah's example of it dated or problematic.
If you have thoughts on this -- responses, citations, arguments, whatever -- I'd love to hear them. Torah study isn't meant to be a declamatory activity; real learning happens in the dialectical process of the back-and-forth. Is the beginning of parashat Mattot problematic for you, and if so, how do you resolve it?