Why I Won't Allow My Voice to Be Silenced
My voice has been loud for my entire life and I’ve never been especially good at controlling its volume. What’s more, I have a lot to say. Reading this week’s Torah portion, Matot/Mas’ei, I was reminded of all the times I’ve been told to be quiet. Sometimes those requests were reasonable, like when I was talking too loudly in the back of my classes, but often, I was silenced because our society has left little room for women’s voices.
Matot/Mas’ei discusses the laws for men’s and women’s vows – which according to The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, is “a binding promise to another party… with at least one member of the party invoking God” (Numbers 30:4). Both men and women can make vows and pledge commitment, and both are obligated to follow through on those promises.
Women, however, have a few additional hurdles to clear. First, unmarried women must make sure their father approves of the vow being made. Should he disapprove, the vow is nullified. Then, should she marry, her vow must again be approved – or not – this time by her husband. If he doesn’t immediately overrule the vow, he takes on all responsibility should it be broken.
As a feminist, I was struck by the many limitations put on women’s vows and the disregard for their choices. The fact that these laws were written suggests that women were asking for participation, respect, and equality, and I can feel the frustration they must have experienced by having these things denied to them by society.
Although women made vows with the intent to keep them, our religious texts told women of the time that their efforts weren’t good enough and their vows weren’t respected in the same way as men’s vows. In Matot, only when a woman is widowed or divorced, is she finally allowed to make a vow and keep it without someone else’s approval.
Antiquity, however, wasn’t the last time a woman had to seek approval from her father or her husband. Not until the mid 19th century did a majority of states pass laws granting married women the right to own property. Women could not vote until 1919 and it wasn’t until 1957 that women could serve on a jury. It was 1974 before women could get a credit card without having their father or husband cosign the application. Indeed, the fight for equality has been a long, uphill battle, and today’s women still struggle to have their voices heard and respected – just like the women making vows in this week’s Torah portion.
I’m frustrated about the limitations put on women’s voices today – when I’m told to be quiet, when I’m ignored, and when I’m patronized. I’m frustrated when women’s experiences with sexual harassment and assault are disregarded or dismissed. I’m frustrated when my tradition sets up a tiered society by treating women as second-class citizens who need male approval for actions and choices that men can freely make.
It’s worth noting that the values in Matot do show that women were allowed to make vows and, with family support, keep them. The society at the time recognized a certain power in women’s vows, which, if their family didn’t object, had as much weight as men’s vows. I appreciate that there was an opportunity for equality. But Matot/Mas’ei is far from satisfactory, and its rules surrounding vows prevented women from fully flourishing as autonomous Jewish individuals with important contributions to make to society. In short, this was a disappointing Torah portion to read – but I take heart in the fact that the Judaism I see today bears little resemblance to this misogynistic system.
Unlike the society of our ancestors, which valued the viewpoints and pledges of fathers and husbands over those of daughters and wives, today’s Reform Jewish community holds women fully equal to men, respecting in all ways their goals, achievements, commitments, and vows. Our tradition – and our world – have come a long way in this regard, although we have a long way yet to go. In the meantime, I will keep raising my voice in all that I do. I promise.