Saturday, July 26, 2008

D'var Torah on Mattot

Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the Lord has commanded:

If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.

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.

If she should marry while her vow or the commitment to which she bound herself is still in force, and her husband learns of it and offers no objection on the day he finds out, her vows shall stand and her self-imposed obligations shall stand. But if her husband restrains her on the day that he learns of it, he thereby annuls her vow which was in force or the commitment to which she bound herself; and the Lord will forgive her. (from the JPS Tanach)

How often have you made a vow? Have you taken an oath recently?

Other than marriage vows, or oaths made in court or some other legal proceeding, today making vows is a less common activity than it was in ancient times. Apparently, long ago, making vows was something that people did often. So often that there needed to be ways to release people of them. Kol Nidre is the most famous of these. We are all familiar with it’s formula: Kol nidre v’esaray… all vows and oaths…Basically releasing us from our vows from this Yom Kippur until next.

But there were other ways of releasing people from vows. As we read the first few sentences of Mattot, we learn that there are 2 types of people: those who can be released from their vows (or rather, whose vows are nullified), and those who cannot. Those who can be released from their vows are girls under the age of 12 ½ who live at home, whose vows can be nullified by the fathers, and married women, whose vows can be nullified by their husbands. Those who cannot be released from their vows are: men, girls over the age of 12-1/2 who live at home, widowed women, and divorced women.

Additionally, the father or husband must nullify the vow the day that the girl/woman makes the vow – not the next day or the day after. It must be immediate.

So let’s think about this for a moment.

What does this mean?

It's easy to get very angry at the patriarchal nature of Judaism. Why is a man's vow automatically taken seriously, but a woman's vow can be canceled by her husband or father?

But thinking further... What is all this business about making vows, anyway? Is it a good thing or a bad thing to have your vows dismissed?

So I looked further, and this is what I found in an introduction to the Talmudic Tractate Nedarim, or vows:
The making of vows would appear to have been a frequent practice in ancient life. People voluntarily denied themselves permitted pleasures, though the Rabbis frowned upon unnecessary asceticism, holding it a sin to abstain from legitimate enjoyment. Again, to express anger or resentment, vows were made whereby one forbade himself to benefit from the object of his displeasure, or forbade the latter to benefit from him. It may be remarked in this connection that the Rabbis disapproved of the whole practice of vowing, so much so that one might rightly speak of the vows of the wicked, but not of the vows of the righteous (Mishnah, 9a).
So it seems that in ancient times, people often made vows, often denying themselves some pleasure. And for some reason, fathers and husbands were allowed to intercede. It's hard for us to enter into this mindset, since we don't make these kind of vows any more.

The feminist side of me says: if women make vows, they should have to keep them, just like men! But the practical side of me says: well, maybe it's a good thing to have an out. Especially if people tended to make these vows in anger. So maybe it's good to have a safety valve of some sort. And while men had to wait until Yom Kippur to have their vows annulled, women could have them annulled on a daily basis if necessary.

To sum up, here’s what one of my favorite bloggers, Rachel Barenblat or the Velveteen Rabbi, says about Mattot:
For many women today that’s bound to be a challenging text. What garment can we weave out of these words that won’t be painful and constricting for us to wear?

At its heart, I think this is a text about making wise commitments. This text implies that people tasked with caring for those who are vulnerable have the sacred obligation of helping those under their care to make safe and healthy promises.

Though we may reject the assumption that men are necessarily powerful and women are necessarily vulnerable, it’s incumbent upon those in power to help protect those they care for. A parent who lets her child succumb to the seduction of a cult, or a mentor who lets his acolyte’s self-worth hinge on an impossible promise: these are role models who are not living up to their role.

The verse about widows and divorced women — in our paradigm, people who have some life-experience under their belts — shows that Torah understands that those who are vulnerable can become empowered, able to make wise decisions.

Torah acknowledges that our words matter…which is why it takes such care to ensure a protection mechanism for those whom society disempowers, so they won’t bind themselves with words which might come back to harm them. Even if we find Torah’s example of it dated or problematic, that core teaching still has tremendous value.

1 comment:

Batya said...

I've been taught that every word is a vow. We must be careful and preface our statements with "bli neder," not a vow.