Kehillat Israel Rabbi Emeritus
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
Matot-Masey (Numbers 30:2-36:13)
Usually when I read through this week’s Torah portion, I feel a little disgusted. It starts out well enough, talking about how important vows were in Biblical times, how if you make a vow to God you need to pay attention to what you promise and make sure that whatever it is you promised God you actually do. After all, I have always liked the idea that for Judaism, as we understand it in the Torah, what you say really, really matters. Words so are important that the Torah even describes all of creation as the result of words: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”
The whole idea that God created everything by the power of speech is an amazing notion, and I have always thought it was incredibly wise of our ancestors to put so much weight into the power of words. After all, everyone I know has had first-hand experience of how words can cause pain and suffering on the one hand, or bring comfort and inspiration on the other. Perhaps this focus on the power of words is one of the reasons that Jews have always been so literary, and so obsessed with understanding the subtle meaning of every word in our sacred text.
In fact, maybe one of the reasons that we can keep reading these same words year after year and somehow always figure out something new to learn from them goes back to that very first idea in the Torah that words are the source of all that is. In any event, reading the words that begin this portion about the importance of vows in Biblical days has never been a problem. It’s what comes after that is so bothersome. What upsets me is the part about how a woman’s vow counts just like a man’s, unless her husband (if she is married) or her father (if she is unmarried) hears the vow when she utters it and annuls it. It has always been such a blatant reminder that the status of women in ancient days was almost like being owned by men and for much of the world it remains very much like that even today. A man can simply say that a woman’s word doesn’t count, and it doesn’t.
But this week as I share these same words with you I encourage you to think in an entirely different direction altogether. Indeed, even this section might still contain an important lesson. It says in the Torah that the husband or father can annul the woman’s vow, but only if he says something about it on the spot. If he hears her speak the words, but keeps silent at that moment, the vow stands and she is bound by it. The more I have thought about this particular law, the more I realize that in its own way, it teaches us the exact same thing as the law in Leviticus that says, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” In Judaism, as far as the Torah is concerned, there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. When we witness the act of another, or in this case when we hear the words of another, the very act of witnessing draws us into the drama as a full partner in the act.
“Turning a blind eye” is an impossibility in Jewish law. The Torah holds the idea of personal responsibility so highly, that if we fail to act after hearing or seeing another person act in an inappropriate way, we are counted as guilty as well. That is what makes this week’s portion as important and relevant as any other in the Torah. If the husband or father hears the vow and doesn’t act, the Torah considers it as if he is supportive of the vow. The rabbis drew an important legal principle from this, namely that “silence is assent.” If you hear something and say nothing, if you see something and do nothing, your silence is taken as assent for the behavior, and the responsibility for its consequences become yours as well.
Of course I still hate the idea that a woman’s word can’t stand on its own in the Torah, and that she is dependent upon the husband or father to give his assent, but the reminder that we are inescapably tied and responsible for one another, is a lesson I never want to forget.
Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D., is Rabbi Emeritus of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades, California. He is a nationally recognized expert in the field of moral education and is the recipient of numerous community awards, including the Micah Award for founding the largest full-service homeless shelter in Los Angeles. He is also a recipient of the Unsung Hero Award from the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. Steven has contributed to a wide variety of publications as an author and composer. He has written numerous books, including Raising Children in a Contemporary World (1992); Raising Ethical Children (Prima Publishing, 1994)…