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.