When I write my weekly divrei Torah, I look for the inspiring messages found in each Parsha. Every single Parsha has them. Even what appears to be just a list of names carries an immense significance and by looking to the commentaries and words of the Sages and Rebbes we can find ideas and morals to enhance our lives. Sometimes, though, I come across things in the Torah which trouble me. If I were to name all these things, I would probably lose quite a few followers, so I will simply say that the Torah view on what is and isn’t an “abomination” is sometimes quite difficult to reconcile with my own.
But I am a Chareidi Jew. Specifically, I follow the teachings of the Chabad Rebbe and the Chassidus. I cannot simply dismiss a part of the Torah because it causes me to feel uncomfortable, or because it is not in line with 21st Century teachings, as I believe it is the literal Word of G-d. Largely, I’m quite socially conservative, and this means that there is usually no conflict between the Torah’s teachings and my own views. I aim to get my social and political views from the Torah, rather than adapting the Torah so that it fits my views. But occasionally, I just cannot seem to do it. Occasionally, a verse is just too troublesome for me to simply accept it without further research. Where does that leave me?
There are not all too many women in Chareidi Judaism who take part in in-depth Torah study (and, tangentially, I am fine with this- I see no wrong in women choosing to dedicate themselves to their families instead). But as a baalas Teshuva- someone who grew up with little religious influence and in a socially liberal climate- I need Torah study to understand the mitzvos I have taken on and the world I have chosen to live in. So to answer the question contained in the last paragraph- when I encounter a teaching which seems difficult to understand or accept, I turn to Torah study to try and shine light on it.
Which brings me to this week’s Parsha, Matos-Massei.
Matos-Massei is a double Parsha, which means that the daily study portions are much longer. But despite having read from it every single day this week, the very first portion has stayed in my mind and I have thought about it every day. It is here that we read about the topic of women making neyderim- vows.
“If a woman makes a vow to the Lord, or imposes a prohibition [upon herself] while in her father’s house, in her youth,
If her father heard her vow or her prohibition which she has prohibited upon herself, yet her father remains silent, all her vows shall stand, and any prohibition that she has imposed upon herself shall stand.
But if her father hinders her on the day he hears it, all her vows and her prohibitions that she has imposed upon herself shall not stand. The Lord will forgive her because her father hindered her…
…But if she vowed in her husband’s house, or imposed a prohibition upon herself with an oath…
Any vow or any binding oath of self affliction, her husband can either uphold it or revoke it.”
The message here is quite clear. While men are free to make oaths as and when they wish, and are required to uphold them, women are not granted the same freedom, instead requiring the permission- or compliance- of their husband or father. Some commentators have declared the ability to make oaths a burden, as opposed to a freedom, stating that the Parsha is treating women kindly by allowing their oaths to be revoked by their husbands and fathers. And while this fits into the notion that women are not obligated to do mitzvos in the same way men are, it fails to address the fact that women are presumed to be under the control of a male relative until they become widows in old age (when their vows can no longer be revoked)- something which I, and many others in this day and age, find difficult to deal with.
So I turned to Torah study in an attempt to find a solution to this problem, this conflict between my own views and sensibilities and the reality of the Torah. I looked at explanations and commentaries, until I came across a solution which, at first, made sense. It suggested that the root of this halacha was shalom bayis- suggesting that it provided a chance for women to discuss neyderim with their husbands before taking them on. This implied a kind of commitment to the relationship which sat well with me, until the obvious question arose- if this were the case, why didn’t husbands need to ask their wives’ permission to make vows?
This brought me to yet another difficult interpretation. If it were about shalom bayis, then the different rules for husbands and wives suggested that shalom bayis included the superiority of the husband. At the time when G-d gave Moshe Rabbenu the Torah, this was probably the norm. But in the 21st century, I object to it. Does my objection make the Torah wrong? No. But as someone who has spoken to and advised countless women in difficult and painful marital situations, I wanted to believe there was more to it than this. I was still troubled by the contents of the Parsha and wanted to find a suitable solution.
So I turned to a later part of the parsha, where it states that widows are exempt from the rules which other women face, and are not subject to the will of their brothers or sons. Normally, for example in inheritance cases, the Torah makes it clear that these male relatives have certain rights- for example, daughters only inherit if there are no sons. But there is no mention of other men in this part of the parsha.
This lends itself to a viewpoint which I found myself much happier with. To me, it suggests that women are not weak and in need of a man’s control after all- instead, it suggests that women have a great responsibility over the men in their lives and thus it is up to them to maintain peace and harmony. This may mean forsaking their vows, but unlike men, they are not obligated to serve G-d in the same way, partially due to the greater amount of Binah- wisdom- which they possess.
This explanation is still not entirely satisfactory, as it suggests that women need to make sacrifices to keep men happy. But it does hint to the fact that women are naturally more in tune with G-d and needn’t disrupt the harmony of the home to serve Him. It gives them a sense of responsibility- a responsibility which doesn’t always seem fair, but nonetheless a great responsibility to act wisely in every contribution made in a relationship.
At the end of the day, though this part of the Parsha is still difficult for me to understand and appreciate, I have learned something. Perhaps I find little inspiration in the laws of vows themselves, but I have learned something about my relationship with Judaism. I have learned to never stop asking questions, to never stop studying and looking for answers. I have learned that I won’t always agree with the Torah, but I still need to live by it. And to me, this is an important part of my Jewish identity. Many Chareidim do not question the Torah in any way. I admire this unwavering faith, but I also admire my own ability to question.
Just as Tzelefchod’s daughters, who also appear in this week’s Parsha, believed that sexism was man made and that G-d loved men and women equally, I, too, believe this. I believe that everything, including evil, comes from G-d, but I also believe that He is, by nature, just, and that to live as He intended me to, I need to understand His Torah. To me, this means I can’t just read it, and accept the parts which seem wrong to me. Instead, I must constantly strive to understand and love it.