July 25, 2017 § 2 Comments

In the context of the Biblical world, a verbal pledge or a vow – a neder in Hebrew – is a binding contract. It has the same force as the written contracts we have today. In a pre-literate society, a vow is your word and you do not retract it, come what may. Breaking a vow carries with it the threat of heavenly punishment. We see a vestige of this practice, in fact, when witnesses solemnly swear with their hand on a Bible before they testify in court.

A young woman may make a vow, but it may be canceled by her father at the time he learns of it. As the text states: “If a woman makes a vow to the Lord or assumes an obligation while still in her father’s household by reason of her youth, and her father learns of her vow or her self-imposed obligation and offers no objection, all her vows shall stand and every self-imposed obligation shall stand. But if her father restrains her on the day he finds out, none of her vows or self-imposed obligations shall stand; and the Lord will forgive her, since her father restrained her.”

So (in the Biblical world) her father has the power to cancel her vow at the time that he hears of it. Similarly, a husband has this power of annulling his wife’s vow: “Every vow and every sworn obligation of self-denial may be upheld by her husband or annulled by her husband.”

His ability to annul her vows is a key reason as to why she is not allowed to be a full witness in court case: her testimony might be overruled or swayed by her husband. How can we know what she says is true?

Interestingly, however, this situation only applies to married women: “The vow of a widow or of a divorced woman…whatever she has imposed on herself, shall be binding upon her.”

I find this point interesting, because it shows us that the key problem with a woman’s vow is not the fact that she is a woman. It’s her relationship to the men in her life that creates the problem with her vow.

In the Biblical world, a woman is dependent on the goodwill of the men in her life to be supported in a household.

Specifically, in a Biblical marriage the balance of power is tilted in favor of her husband. He may have multiple wives, and he may divorce her. She, on the other hand, may not have multiple husbands – not all at once, anyway – and she does not have the power of divorce, except under very specific circumstances. In the Biblical world, he has all of the power in the relationship.

The Bible tries to make her less dependent upon him by ensuring that she receives a ketubah amount – essentially, a lump-sum payment of alimony – so that she does not starve when she gets divorced. But this is not a situation where community assets are divided equally.

Furthermore, she does not have the same access to wealth prior to her wedding. If she has brothers, they receive the full amount of her family’s inheritance.

But once she becomes a widow or a divorcee – once her wealth is her own, she has a modicum of self-determination. Then she may make a vow and have it stand.

How has the world changed since then? For one thing, in the modern context, we start from the assumption that the two partners in the relationship – regardless of their gender – are equal. From our perspective, therefore, women are considered to be self-determining, and they may not be overruled by their spouse whenever they take on a vow. That might not sound like a lot, but it becomes critically important when it comes to the ability to bear witness. It means that women can take on the roles of men in leading the community, such as being counted in the minyan, the quorum of ten Jews needed for a prayer-community.

As for the Reform movement, the decision to count women in the minyan was made in 1845, which was the formal ratification of a policy that started in 1811. The first American rabbi to count women was Isaac Meyer Wise in 1846.



§ 2 Responses to Matot-Ma’asei

  • Sr Brian Marie says:

    Thanks for the reflection. Although it only apples a little bit to me, I liked the history lesson. Hope things are going well for you and your family.

  • Carol Staves says:

    IS that why Gloria Steinem didn’t marry until her career was secured, and she much older?. Why she could interject her views on feminism without male influence? But I imagine she did have male friends she interviewed, observed. Betty Friedan? Bella Asbug, so many other free/open minded women who wanted a women’s perspective on life.

    However in Biblical times women were at the largess of their husbands. They didn’t work, endured Childbirth, lots of reasons. I think of Ruth, Naomi, Esther……

    Well, I can reflect on the times and conditions of the Bible, and of the modern day women.

    I don’t like what I see with young women today, so free with their bodies, their language and attitudes. In my opinion the boat was missed, what I see isn’t healthy, moral, ethical….

    But no one is going backwards, I know my views are considered outdated and old fashion. Well, they served me well and I do share them with my daughter, my grand children and female friends in general.

    Vows, 52 years ago I vowed to love, honor and respect my husband. He has earned this every day, and I in turn am loved, honored and respected by him and my children.

    PS: where are you now? Best wishes! Shalom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Matot-Ma’asei at Godtalk.


%d bloggers like this: