I had an extraordinary experience yesterday. For the first time, I taught the Women’s Torah Study that meets Thursday mornings. I know many working women are not able to attend at that time, but for any woman who is available, it is an engaging and intelligent group who will leave you thinking. But this group of women did more than educate and inspire me; they emboldened me to explore one of the most important and consequential topics of our time.
Before we get there, let me take you back to the section of the Torah that prompted our discussion. This week we have a double Torah portion from the Book of Numbers: Matot and Masei. These portions take place during the forty years our ancestors wandered in the Sinai Desert, before they entered the Land of Israel. Moses has gathered the heads of each of the twelve tribes, and he is teaching them God’s new instructions for the community. He says, “If a householder makes a vow to God, obliging himself to do something, he had better fulfill his pledge.” A vow is simply a promise made in God’s name. We make vows all the time in the United States: “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” If you break a vow or an oath to God, it is serious, today as back then.
But here is where the text becomes both deeply problematic and also surprising. We know that biblical society was a strict and severe patriarchy. I think, I hope, that we are all happy to leave the worst elements of patriarchy behind. We’ll talk about that more in a moment. So, we know that if a man or boy makes a vow or oath to God, the oath remains in force. He has to fulfill it, and there is no one who can release him from that vow or oath. Here, then, is the troubling part. If a woman makes an oath, the “man” of the house can annul that oath. A woman might say, “I make an oath to God that I will dedicate part of my income to the Temple.” Her father or the husband can hear that and say, “No way! Your words don’t count.”
When we studied this together, I was deeply moved by the stories of the women in the group who shared their experiences of having their words not count, of being ignored or not believed. One facet of the #MeToo movement is this sense that a woman’s word is neither believed nor valued. Like the man of the house in our Torah portion who dismisses his daughter’s or wife’s vow, there are so many women who spoke up about being disparaged or mistreated or worse, their words dismissed. With a modicum of empathy on the part of men, we should be able to imagine the diminishment and disparagement that women felt and continue to feel when their words are simply rejected or minimized. It’s a pain that has built up over years and decades, centuries and millennia.
It’s important that we recognize the limitations of our ancestors’ perspective. They lived in a very different time and place. But it’s also important to delve just a little deeper into their words, to see if there are any lessons that we should learn from their practices. Because, in this patriarchal biblical society, the husband’s ability to disregard his wife’s or daughter’s vow is actually fairly limited. It’s true and troublesome that the husband can dismiss his daughter’s and especially his wife’s oath; however, according to the text, he can only dismiss it on the day he hears about it. If a woman in his home vows to give up Starbucks for a year, and the husband hears about it on the thirtieth day, he can say, “You are no longer bound by that vow.” That doesn’t mean she has to begin drinking Starbucks again, only that she no longer has the obligation to give up drinking Starbucks. But if he hears about it on the thirtieth day, he has to say something that day, or the woman’s words stand. Even during this most patriarchal of times, there were significant limitations placed on the man’s ability to dismiss a woman’s words. I don’t want to idealize this time or to suggest in any way that we should go back there. We shouldn’t gloss over the many salient examples where women were in a horribly inferior position, but neither should we ignore this important principle: whoever is in power must have limitations placed on them, even in patriarchies.
In the Women’s Torah Study, we talked about this idea of anyone in power needing limits placed on them because we are in the midst of a colossal and welcome shift in power. It has been needed forever, but it has been coming on for over a hundred years—at least since the suffragette movement. While before, men had almost all of the power, the balance is shifting, slowly and awkwardly. Before our very eyes, the rules of society are being rewritten and our understanding of what is acceptable are being replaced. This is a good thing because, as the women in the Torah study group impressed upon me, the discomforts, indignities, and real damages, both physical and psychological, are real and should not be ignored.
But transitions are difficult, even positive ones. As a congregation, we know it; and as a society we feel it. In many ways, our society is like the children of Israel wandering in the desert. We didn’t like being in Egypt, but at least we knew the rules. Now we are traveling through the Sinai desert, and the old rules are being shed like a shawl on a hot day. Some men and, I suppose, a few women are saying, “We liked the old rules.” Many more men and women are saying, “We know the old rules were wrong, but we don’t know what the new rules should be.” In the Sinai desert, God simply gave us a new set of rules. However, as a society, we have to make those rules up together as we go. Let’s be honest, this is hard. How many of us held one set of beliefs years ago only to be uncomfortable or embarrassed by those beliefs today? I would bet that in quiet personal reflection, we could all identify examples of those beliefs within ourselves.
So how do we move forward? How do we traverse this desert when the old rules seem inadequate and the new rules have yet to be written? Is it, for instance, okay for a boss to proposition a subordinate? I think we can all agree that is wrong? Can either one express interest in dating one another? That still seems like a problem. What about an adult teacher and an adult student? That still seems dicey. What about coworkers? Can they have a relationship? Can they express interest in each other?
Thankfully, we are moving beyond some of the horrible social norms that were, at the very least, tolerated, but as we move through our Sinai desert, I think that there are three brief lessons that we might learn.
The first lesson is about listening and owning. It is almost certain that we know people who have acted badly in the past. We may be embarrassed at our own past actions, perhaps only recently realizing the hurt we may have caused. Healing comes first by listening to the pain of those around us who have been hurt by our words and actions. Rather than defending our past behavior, it is better to simply acknowledge the pain we may have caused. In other words, own the action. It is a sacred act for us to listen to someone’s pain and then express honest remorse for how we may have contributed to it. For any women or men who have been hurt in the past, I want you to know that I can only imagine the pain you have experienced, and if you want to tell your story to someone, I am ready to hear it.
After you have told your story and feel truly heard, I think it is important to recognize the difficulty of making these large societal changes. We, and by that, I mean both men and women, will make mistakes. We will fall into old patterns or we will cross a boundary that may still be in the process of being worked out. Gone are the days when you are expected to remain silent. Your words and feelings are important. As those words come out, I hope they can be clothed in the kindness and compassion that was too often denied to you. Being kind is not an obligation limited to women; we should not ask anyone to fit into a traditional gender stereotype. My hope is that men and women will show kindness to other human beings who are trying honestly to figure out these new social rules, even if these people inevitably misstep.
The last insight is one that I am most interested in discussing with you in the months and years to come. We learned from our Torah portion that even in patriarchal societies, fathers and husbands had power over their daughters and wives, but even these men had limits placed upon them. As power shifts more evenly among men and women alike, I wonder how that new power will be wielded and checked. Some actions that men have done are so egregious that they deserve to be condemned and even prosecuted, and those men who are guilty should live with the just consequences for their actions. But how do we distinguish among those egregious acts and unrepentant people, and people who made mistakes in the past and who are working to own up to them and change their behavior, and, finally, those people who are trying their best to navigate this difficult and changing social landscape and occasionally messing up. I want to know if you think we should treat these groups differently. And if so, how do we set limits on those who which to condemn and expel everyone who breaks any boundary?
Last week, I said that I want a community of honesty and kindness where we can honor one another as we create a better society. That is what I hope we are beginning tonight with this first conversation. I want to admit to you that talking about this makes me nervous because the possibility of causing pain and being misunderstood is so great. But I believe the promise of TAE is that we can be kind and honest where hearts are open and people are heard. Compassionate conversation is our very best tool to ennoble ourselves and heal our society. This too is an act of tikkun olam. I hope you will join me in repairing our world.