Matot-Masey (Numbers 30:2-36:13)

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
Last week the ugly issue of women’s rights and the exploitation and abuse of women and girls throughout the world raised its ugly head once again. Here we are half way through 2013, into the second decade of the 21st century, and I am constantly saddened and amazed at how little has changed regarding the rights of women and how they are treated around the world.

Celebrity activist Angelina Jolie made her debut in the United Nations Security Council to urge officials to make rape punishment a priority around the world. Jolie is a “goodwill ambassador” for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, and shared her dismay at the atrocities that continue to be visited upon innocent girls and women throughout the world. She described some particularly horrendous instances of rape: “Boys held at gunpoint and forced to sexually assault their mothers and sisters. Women raped with bottles, wood branches, and knives to cause as much damage as possible. Toddlers and even babies dragged from their homes and violated.” The good news? After she spoke, the U.N. passed its broadest resolution on sexual violence in conflict in its history. But the fact that such victimization and brutalization continues is the more telling reflection that the state of human society continues to prey on women and relegate them to less status than men in countless ways.

Item number two from last week was that Saudi Arabia sentenced two female activists to prison for 10 months for the crime of “inciting a woman against her husband.” What they actually did was try to come to another women’s aid when she called saying her husband had locked her and her children in their home without enough food to eat. This after she had already courageously reported physical abuse to the authorities and of course nothing was done to rescue or help her in any way. As her two female friends came to her door to try and help this Canadian citizen who was married to a Saudi man escape from her abusive husband, they were arrested and now sentenced to prison. And so, the world continues to be a scary and unsafe place for millions of women and girls every single day.

Did I mention that we are in the 21st century already? Evidently not in Georgia, where the athletic director of a Christian middle school stated, “the boys are going to start lusting after her and have impure thoughts about her,” and then banned a seventh grade girl from rejoining her football team. He and the school officials then mandated that the “official policy is that middle school girls play girl sports and middle school boys play boy sports.” What else can I say?

The more things change, the more they continue to oppress and exploit women, the more they continue to be denied the basic human rights that all men and women ought to enjoy, the more victimization continues, the more women continue to live in fear, the more legislatures like that of Texas want to take away a woman’s right to control her own body, the more work we still have to do to create a society that reflects the Biblical ideal of all human beings being created in the divine image.

In this week’s Torah portion, we are told that a husband has the right to void any vow that his wife has made. As frustrating as that might be, we understand that a legal text written over 3,000 years ago can’t be expected to treat women and men equally. But in 2013? To still have a society that in so many ways continues to reflect that same patronization of women that is reflected in Biblical times is simply unacceptable to a modern sensibility. I believe that being created in God’s image means that every person, male or female, regardless of color, or religion, or language spoken has fundamental spiritual worth and value, and as such must be given the same rights to control their destiny as any other human being in the world. Perhaps it is my own personal version of messianic thinking, but I am determined to do whatever I can in my life to champion the inalienable rights of all to self-determination and personal fulfillment. That, I believe is ultimately what the Torah is really all about in the first place.

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