I’m not going to say much about either the review or the book, because I think you should go read the review yourselves, but the reason I mention it is because the first thing that popped into my head -no, really- was this week’s parsha. The beginning of parshat Mattot jumps into a set of commandments about what happens when people take oaths, but most of its focus is set squarely upon what happens when women take oaths. And the answer is not exactly pretty.
The Torah tells us that if a woman who is underage makes an oath, if the father acts immediately, he has the power to revoke the oath. Similarly, when a woman gets married, as soon as he hears about any oath she has made for herself, if he says something on that day, the husband can revoke it. Only a woman who is single - either divorced, or a widow- has ultimate power over her own vows. Of course this is nothing quite new. There are all sorts of ways in which the Torah makes quite clear that a woman is not a full agent, unless she has “acquired herself” through death or divorce.
in Parshat kedoshim on Vayikra 19:3
אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ וְאֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:
Every man his mother and father you shall fear and My sabbaths you shall observe.I am Adonai your God.
אין לי אלא איש, אשה מנין, כשהוא אומר תיראו הרי כאן שנים, ד א”כ למה נאמר איש, שהאיש סיפק בידו לעשות, אבל אשה רשות ה אחרים עליה:
I [know this] of a man, from where [do I know this of] a woman? When it says: “You shall fear,” this is two. If so, why is “man” mentioned? For it is in a man’s power to do, but a woman is under the control of others.
As Sifra explains, (Sifra Kedoshim, par. 1, 3) A woman must consult her husband about her activities outside the house.
This is only the very beginning of skimming through many texts where it is quite clear that women are not considered to be agents, nor have they the power to make themselves such. According to the commentators, even the power to obey commandments expressly given to them by God are mediated through the lesser social status of gender.
This is why the review of MacKinnon’s book reminded me of this week’s portion: here it is one of the places where women’s lesser status is made clear.
Vows - words- are a form of reality - God speaks and the world comes into being. In Judaism, unlike other religions, words are not transferrable. Any language isn’t as good as any other in all things: Hebrew is the holy language, and as soon as one translates, one loses something. Words aren’t symbols, they are, themselves, power.To say that one person can revoke another’s vows is to make literal one’s power over another - it is saying that one has the power to erase another’s speech, and in so doing, erase their deeds and their power, as well.
Is there an out? Yes - the out is that when women are free of others - widows or single adult women, others have no power over them, even biblically. In these days, we must recognize that speech reifies - it is not, in Judaism, simply sound waves that disappear like ripples in a pond. It is the movement of oceans - equaivalent both to the dripping of water on stones that wear them smooth, to the destructive force of tsunamis. When God speaks, the world comes into being. So, too when we speak. This is why the rabbis felt so strongly about vows.
The Talmud, in Nedarim 77b, states: “Rav Dimi, the brother of Rav Safra, learnt: He who vows, even though he fulfils it, is designated a sinner.” This isn’t the only position of the rabbis of course: others held that if one made a vow and fulfilled it, that was praiseworthy - but what all the rabbis shared was a deep respect for vows, and a horror of making vow that might not be fulfilled.
How can we understand the underlying meaning of these verses. Does the Torah really intend to tell women that the power of words is not for us? Are we really to be stripped of our humanity, only subject to others, always the silent servants in the room?
Of course, we shouldn’t forget that the Torah does leave an out: the woman who is no longer under the authority of her father or husband. This seems to imply that today, when we expect men and womento be equals in marriage, the ability to annul vows is not in effect: rather we should understand not just that women are always subject to men, but the reverse as well. What the Torah means is that in a house where there are two, they must take one another into account when speaking, when shaping the reality of their lives. It also means that we understand that silencing another person is in essence equivalent to murder: because if words are power, preventing speech stops not only their tongue, but their hands.
The Chofetz Chaim, commenting on a verse from this week’s portion, says, (31:8)
And they slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain; namely, Evi…they also slew Balaam the son of Beor with the sword:
He came to Israel and changed his tools of trade for theirs, for the Jews are only saved by their mouths and by their prayers and entreaties, while he came and used their belief, by cursing them with his mouth. They too changed their tools of trade for his, for the other nations come with the sword as it states, “By your sword you shall live.” (Rashi) From this we see that the tool of the trade of the Jewish people is speech, and with it they can create worlds, both material and spiritual, as it states, (Isa. 51:16), “I have put My words in your mouth…to plant the heavenes and lay the foundations of the earth,” therefore a Jew must be very careful not to harm the tools if his trade, i.e. his tongue, by speaking that which is forbidden, but must utilize these tools for Torah and prayer.
What does it mean to be human? To be human, one must be heard, and one must have the power to carry out one’s intentions. Martha Nussbaum makes a very interesting comment in the review, in which she summarizes Mackinnon’s central theme as, ” the hypocrisy of the international system when it faces up to some crimes against humanity but fails to confront similar harms when they happen to women…There is a category of torture, and we think we know how to define it. We think we know what it does: It uses violence to control and intimidate. And yet when violence is used to control and intimidate women ‘in homes in Nebraska…rather than prison cells in Chile,’ we don’t call it torture, and we somehow think it is not the same thing. Torture in Chile is not explained away as the work of isolated sick individuals…”
Aside from the fact that only too often, we do rationalize torture as the work of isolated sick individuals (take for example the US government’s reaction to the exposure of methods of torture by American soldiers - in all sorts of places, but just for specificity’s sake, let’s focus on Abu Ghraib) let’s ask what’s really the point: that these women are treated in a way which undermines their status as human beings. The Torah of course isn’t advocating that women ought to be tortured: chas v’shalom! But it does lay the groundwork, when we read these commandments without subtlety, for women to be in situations where they cannot escape from being treated this way.
For generations - and even today, in some places- shalom bayit, peace in the home- was used as a bludgeon against abused women to prevent them from leaving, to place the blame on them for violence against them. Again, the Torah is not advocating this, but its words, used poorly, bolster those who would be naval bir’shut hatorah - villains within the boundary of Torah (or with the permission of Torah) and so abuse it. And so, ultimately, it is up to us to make sure that the Torah’s words are not made into a way to silence the powerless, but rather used as God intended, as a way to protect the powerless. But we have to be careful, because often, systems which have at their heart the desire to protect, reinforce systems in which people remain in need of protection, rather than fixing the actual problem, it perpetuates it.
We can read the verses on vows in many ways: focusing on the way that society was in those days, in which the Torah protected women, by giving them a way to not be held liable for their inability to fulfil their obligations; or we can focus upon the future, in which the Torah tells us that a woman who is a full agent has the power to carry out her vows. This shouldn’t make us wanton with our power: we should always take care to make sure that our actions don’t adversely affect those around us - we shoud take care with our power- but ultimately, we must be free to act, in order to use the tools of our trade.
Crossposted to Radical Torah