Vows that Restrict: Vows that Protect

Matot, Numbers 30:2−32:42

D'Var Torah By: Richard A. Block

As Numbers approaches its conclusion, Parashat Matot takes up the subject of "vows" that men or women may make and "obligations" they may assume. As one commentary explains, "The former represent a promise to do, the latter a promise to abstain" (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, p. 1,100).1 Such promises were undertakings of utmost seriousness as they were made to God, rendering their fulfillment or the failure to fulfill them a matter of transcendent importance.

What is striking about this material to the modern reader is the disparate treatment of men and women with respect to these solemn commitments. When a man made a vow or took an oath, he was required to "carry out all that . . . crossed his lips" (Numbers 30:3). While women were empowered to make vows and oaths, these could be abrogated by the male authority figure in their lives if he renounced the commitment upon first learning of it. In the case of a minor, unmarried daughter still living "in her father's household" (30:4), it was her father who held that power. Likewise, a husband could annul the vow or oath of a woman he marries "while her vow or the commitment to which she bound herself is still in force" or who makes such a promise after they marry. If the husband invalidates his wife's vow or oath thereafter he, rather than she, bears the guilt attendant upon the annulment. Only the sacred undertakings of widows and divorcees, who had no male authority figure to whom they were subordinate, were held to be binding.

The disparity in treatment of men's and women's vows and oaths exemplifies the secondary legal and social status of females in biblical legislation, an inequality that persisted throughout the postbiblical and Rabbinic periods, and has yet to be fully eradicated even in our egalitarian era. From the perspective of modernity, no effort at apologetics can negate the injustice. That said, when we encounter a problematic biblical text, intellectual and moral honesty require that we contextualize the offending provisions. The subordination of women was universal in ancient times and it remains the norm in much of the world today. It hardly seems fair to judge the social structure of antiquity or the medieval period by contemporary standards. What strikes me as remarkable in the Jewish tradition's treatment of women is not the inequalities but the instances of same treatment regardless of gender, and those that take a progressive approach to the needs and problems of women.

An example of the latter is the traditional ketubah formula, by which a man "acquires" a woman as his wife. It is rightly pointed out that the Hebrew word meaning an "act of acquisition," kinyan has property connotations and that the unilateral nature of the Jewish wedding contract text implies the woman's status as unequal, if not an outright "acquisition." Not surprisingly, nowadays most couples marrying under Reform Jewish auspices choose an egalitarian ketubah that expresses the mutuality of their commitments and the intended equality of their marital partnership. Nonetheless, the traditional ketubah, in which the groom makes binding promises to treat the bride with dignity and respect, and which guarantees her a financial settlement should they divorce, deserves to be recognized as revolutionary development in the status of women and a significant step in the direction of ultimate equality.

It is also well to remember that righteous indignation over historic injustices, if not accompanied by a passionate commitment to continue the struggle against those that persist, amounts to little more than self-indulgence, hypocrisy, and an undeserved sense of moral superiority. Like our ancestors, ancient and more recent, we too will someday be judged in terms of our own action or inaction in combating the inequality of our own era, including discrimination against women that still exists in employment, pay, the division of family and household responsibilities, reproductive rights, and more. Our deeds, too, will be scrutinized to determine if we accepted prevailing social norms passively, rather than subjecting them to the rigorous ethical critique our prophetic tradition calls upon us to conduct, and acting accordingly. Indeed, failure on our part to advance gender equality, given our affirmation that it is a core value of both democracy and Judaism, would arguably be a more grievous sin than the gender-based disparities instituted or tolerated by earlier generations to whom these seemed as natural as the rising and setting of the sun.

1. Commentary on Numbers 30:3, W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 1,100

Rabbi Richard A. Block is senior rabbi of The Temple - Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, Ohio. He is president-elect of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the vice chair of the Reform Pension Board.

The Scope and Nature of Obligation

Rather than pursue issues of gender equality and power, I suggest an alternative perspective. Incidents recorded in Matot address the scope and nature of obligation. One such incident is the battle against Midian and the how the twelve tribes shared the obligation to raise the levy of a thousand soldiers each to form an army. Some chose to ignore a limit on booty that was part of their charge (Numbers 31:14-16). This had consequences for the entire army because all were responsible (Numbers 31:21)..

A second episode recounts the desire of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to settle on the east of the Jordan where there was good grazing for their cattle. This request comes as our ancestors are preparing to enter the Land of Israel and posses it. The tone of the text suggests this petition to avoid a sacred obligation borders on rebellion. Moses crafts a solution in which special privilege is granted, but it is paired with a heightened obligation.

The opening verses of Matot can also be understood to raise issues of obligation. Without ignoring the gendered context, it is possible to deduce from these verses that if anyone-man or woman-were to make a vow, it could reasonably be annulled if it imposed a responsibility on others without their consent. In this situation, a vow is made that has implications for those who are duty bound to support the vow, but without first informing them. Should they not have a right to set aside the vow if they are not prepared to share the obligation?

Obligations define us. As individuals, there are some obligations we are free to assume, or not. As members of a community, our obligations are shared, regardless. And for us as Jews, some obligations are sacred and incumbent upon us for all time. Matot helps us clarify which are which.

Rabbi Jack A. Luxemburg is senior rabbi of Temple Beth Ami, Rockville, Maryland.

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"

Originally published: