The Heart of the Matter

Matot, Numbers 30:2−32:42

D'Var Torah By: Philip “Flip” Rice

"Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the Eternal has commanded . . . " (Numbers 30:2)

As the Jewish people worldwide make our way toward the conclusion of the fourth book of the Torah, B'midbar, we approach with the Israelites the end of our time together "in the wilderness." Unfortunately, the material and agenda of the final two portions of the Book of Numbers are difficult to reconcile given our modern sensibilities. This week in Parashat Matot, not only are we taught to commit genocide in the name of vengeance (Numbers 31:14–18), but also our text reflects a society that is misogynist and considers women not fit to govern themselves. The beginning of our Torah portion relates that it is fathers and husbands who will decide which vows their wives and daughters enact that will stand and which are to be revoked (Numbers 30:3–17). A woman's word is not their word. How do we reconcile the power and purpose of Torah here with our modern understandings of Judaism today? What might we learn from this portion of the Torah?

The Rabbis of the past had a method of studying text—a hermeneutic—several in fact. In the great Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbedita, in Eastern European yeshivot, in Brooklyn cheders, in our local Jewish day schools and Reform religious schools, there are and have always been methods, theories of interpretation with regard to Torah. Hermeneutics, especially of the Bible and Rabbinic texts, is the lens by which we understand Torah. And there are as many ways to understand Torah as there are to understand God. There are levels to the text, and there are reasons we approach it with reverence and also with a bit of skepticism.

At Congregation Micah, like at many synagogues in the world, we have a hermeneutic. We teach it to everyone and anyone who studies Torah with us: children, adults, Christians, rabbis, scholars, guests, regulars, and so on. Our method of study is this: anything that demeans another human being cannot be from God! Like Jews of the past, present, and future, like Jews in Israel and throughout the Diaspora, we wrestle with our ancestors and the texts of the Jewish people. We are just steadfast in our understanding that we can wrestle all we want with our heads, but our hearts determine our character, and the spirit of the Torah's teachings.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who often teaches Torah at Congregation Micah writes, "Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of Israel, saying, 'this is the thing that God has commanded: If a man makes a vow or takes an oath . . . ' The Torah never says that God says this; Torah says that Moses says that God says this. Moses is using God to excuse his own misogynist bias."1 God can be co-opted, and here, like a politician Moses co-opts God. Rabbi Shapiro further teaches that Moses spoke to the "heads" of the tribes; their heads, not their hearts. Because in our hearts we know that demeaning women, young and old, is wrong. Because in our hearts we know that placing women below men on the hierarchy of Judaism is wrong. In shifting the authorship of the text from God to Moses, Rabbi Shapiro reinforces our hermeneutic: anything that degrades other human beings does not come from God.

With Shabbat Chazon, "the Sabbath of Vision," coming up in two weeks,2 consider the lens by which you come to study Torah. What biases do you bring as you distinguish the prejudices and agendas of the different voices in the text: the voice of God; the voices of the biblical characters; the voices of the redactors of the text, and the generations of rabbis and scholars who offer their insights; the voice inside of you? Read the text with an open mind, and be ready to learn with an open heart. Why? Divisions of the head reflect less the natural order of things than the political nature of things. It is our hearts that know that such divisions—chosen and not chosen, pure and impure, of a hierarchy of priests and nations—are somewhat arbitrary. Our hearts know that the separations and distinctions in our lives arise from our actions: good and bad, loving or fearful, compassionate or cruel, justified or underserved. Our hearts help our heads best navigate the sometimes foreign landscape we encounter in the wilderness of Torah.

  1. "Simply Jewish Torah Commentary: Mattot and Masei," July 20, 2003

  2. Shabbat Chazon will take place on August 2, 2014/ 6 Av, 5774

Rabbi Philip "Flip" Rice is co-senior rabbi at Congregation Micah in Nashville, Tennessee, where he shares the pulpit with his wife, Rabbi Laurie Rice.

Opening Our Heart to Broaden Our Perspective

A few weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune published a small article titled "He gets How Much? Even Allowances Can't Escape the Gender Gap."1 According to recent research, girls do more chores than boys at home, while boys receive more and higher allowance. In 2014, the gender inequality between boys and girls (and men and women) still exists when it comes to many areas of modern life. What does our tradition teach us about these inequities and injustice?

Modern commentator Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut remarks on this week's parashah: "In matters of human dignity, faith, and ethical behavior, the Bible knows only of human beings without respect to their sexual differences."2 Specifically, he's discussing the inequities addressed above by my colleague Rabbi Rice, but Rabbi Plaut could be speaking to us as a society today as well.

As Reform Jews, part of our very ethos is to strive for the equality of men and women in all facets of our daily lives. In May of 2012, we marked the fortieth anniversary of the ordination of the first female rabbi, Sally Priesand, in 1972. We have come a long way from those early days when very few women held leadership positions in Jewish life: either as lay leaders or as leading professionals in our major institutions. But our work still is not complete.

In our parashah this week, we see only one aspect of how women are depicted by the Bible—how men can place limits on them. But our tradition is rich with strong and powerful women who played a major role in the life of our people. Keeping an open heart and open mind means looking for those places in our Jewish texts where we can hear these women's voices and find inspiration from their actions.

We can learn from Eve, who enabled us to gain wisdom by eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge; from Rebekah, who guaranteed that Jacob would succeed in bringing about God's will; from the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, who saved the Israelite baby boys despite Pharaoh's harsh decree; from Pharaoh's daughter herself, who raised the Israelite baby Moses as an Egyptian prince; from the great Israelite prophetess/judge, Deborah, who led the Israelites in combat with the Canaanites; and from Beruriah, wife of the Talmudic Rabbi Meir, who in her own right taught and gave sage instruction.

The lesson from our Torah text reminds us that to truly navigate the "sometimes foreign landscape we encounter in the wilderness of Torah" (Rabbi Rice, above) we must seek out a plurality of texts that give us a rich and broad perspective of the strength of women in our Jewish tradition.

  1. Amanda Marcotte, Chicago Tribune, Sunday, June 8, 2014, Section 6: Lifestyles, p. 9, quoting information from the blog, ThinkProgress, by financial policy editor, Bryce Covert

  2. The Torah, A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed. [NY: URJ Press, 2005], p. 1,110

Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel is the Rabbi of Temple Isaiah of Stony Brook, New York. You can read more of her writing on her blog: www.rabbisharonsobel.com (Food for Mind, Body and Spirit).

Reference Materials

Matot, Numbers 30:2-32:42
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,215-1,229; Revised Edition, pp. 1,099-1,112;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 989-1,012

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