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Towards an Honest Egalitarianism

Mattot-Mas'ei 5779 / 3 August 2019

August 8, 2019

When Marc and I were planning our wedding and selecting the wording for our ketubah, we chose two very different texts to exist side by side on the same document. One, the traditional text in Aramaic, lays out the financial aspects of a marriage and the groom’s obligations to his wife, and two, an English reinterpretation that says, among other things, “We promise to work together to create a harmonious relationship of equality.”

The Aramaic text is starkly, dramatically removed from our ideals of an egalitarian union, and yet, we chose it to recognize that, at the time that it was written, the ketubah was a radical document that actually served to protect women’s rights. The English text is nice, and I’m glad we chose it, but it is not deeply rooted in our peoplehood. Rather, it’s soothing and acceptable to our contemporary sensibilities. And so, like that, on our wall forever, we codified the tension between history and modernity, between tradition and revolution, between gendered and egalitarian.

I was reminded of our ketubah – and these ever-present, ongoing tensions – when I read this week’s double parsha, Matot-Masei. The parasha opens with an outline of vows, particularly, when a woman’s vow can be overturned by her father or her husband. I can sum it up like this: a woman’s vow can be overturned if the man of the household decides it should be, and her vow can be upheld if the man of the household decides so. A widow or a divorced woman, though, is responsible for her own vow and, not surprisingly, a man, regardless of marital status, is responsible for his own vow.

Rabbi Richard A. Block, a former president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, writes in a d’var Torah of Matot:

“The disparity in treatment of men’s and women’s vows and oaths exemplifies the secondary legal and social status of females in biblical legislation, an inequality that persisted throughout the postbiblical and Rabbinic periods, and has yet to be fully eradicated even in our egalitarian era.”

He goes on to say, much in the way that I connected the parsha to the Ketubah,

“the traditional ketubah, in which the groom makes binding promises to treat the bride with dignity and respect, and which guarantees her a financial settlement should they divorce, deserves to be recognized as a revolutionary development in the status of women and a significant step in the direction of ultimate equality.”

It is both revolutionary and no where near sufficient, and we have a responsibility to see both of those realities.

Because this week is a double parsha, we also read Masei, which brings us the second half of the story of Zelophehad’s daughters. Back in parashat Pinchas, these five awesome women – without father or husband, approach Moshe and Eleazar and the larger community to say that they deserve land as part of their father’s inheritance. God agrees and creates a hierarchy of property assignments. The land still goes to sons firsts, but after that, daughters are entitled to the land before another male relative.

In this week’s parsha, though, the male relatives of the sisters, Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, get concerned. What if these women marry outside the clan of Menasheh and this property is then transferred to their husbands?

God answers this way, “They may marry anyone they wish, provided they marry into a clan of their father’s tribe.” On the one hand, that’s obviously not the same as marrying anyone they wish. On the other hand, within the context of biblical marriage, property status, and women’s rights, it sounds pretty radical for any part of that sentence to say “they may marry anyone they wish.”

I recently read the novel, Eternal Life, by Dara Horn, which revolves around a woman named Rachel, who lives in the time of the 2nd Temple. As an aside, as we approach Tisha B’Av, I’ve been thinking about this book a lot, and I don’t think anything I’ve read before has connected me to the destruction of the temple as much as this contemporary novel, so if you need some reading to get you through the Nine Days, I highly recommend this book.

Rachel, the character, takes a vow that grants her immortality, but what might sound like a blessing quickly reveals itself to be a curse. The connection between Rachel’s vow and this week’s parsha is what first caught my attention, but even more, the fictional Rachel experiences firsthand how women were treated in Temple times and how their role in society has evolved since then. She has lived through every generation, and her narrative provides a historical measuring stick for women’s rights around things like property transfer, deciding who to marry, and women’s identity and autonomy. Just like the historical ketubah text, something that she experienced as revolutionary in one time period can still be out of place today.

And yet, how anachronistic are these things, really – things like women’s decisions or ideas being overruled by men? The examples from today’s parasha of how women fit into Biblical society can be so difficult for us to read because we think they no longer apply, while, really, deep down, we know that we’ve only come so far.

An article by Casey Cep in the July 8th and 15th issue of the New Yorker looks at several books about the women’s suffrage movement on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. When I realize that women have only had the right to vote for 100 years, well, it puts the sexism of the Torah into a very different historical context. The subtitle of the article is, “The halting, imperfect, unfinished work of women’s suffrage,” and indeed, the quest for women’s rights – and all voting rights – has been imperfect, and is unfinished.

In a truly egalitarian society, we wouldn’t be talking about equal pay for women as something to strive for. It would be a given. We wouldn’t have to worry about all-male panels at conferences, or sexual harassment at work, because it would be unthinkable. We wouldn’t have to consider whether we are willing, sometimes, to quiet our own voices because that is what is expected of us. I’m grateful to my friend Amit, who delivered the d’var Torah on this bimah only a few weeks ago, and who talked about amplifying women’s voices, and the responsibility we all have to listen.

A recently published infographic entitled, “Dynamics of the Jewish Patriarchy,” created for this summer’s issue of the Journal of the Association of Jewish Studies by Elana Sztokman and Shoshana Balofsky, cites a number of sobering statistics, including the following: Fewer than 17% of top executives of Jewish non-profits are women. Jewish women execs make 60% less compared to men. Writing under a man’s name makes you 8 times more likely to get published. Less than one third of board members at Jewish non-profits are women.

Each time we read something in the Torah that strikes us as sexist, outdated, or impossibly hard to imagine, I hope we can take another moment to appreciate, yes, how far we’ve come, how lucky we are to daven together in this egalitarian space, and how privileged we are to have female and male leaders to look up to. But also, we need to take those moments to reflect on where we hope to go from here. We are still pushing against a legacy where different rules apply to women and men, and where it’s not at all impossible to see where women are subjected to circumstances that are not egalitarian at all.

Let’s continue looking at our contemporary world through a lens of striving for equality and true and honest egalitarianism — not just a system that looks good compared to our history or compared to the society around us, but a world that is equal and just by any and all objective measures.

Shabbat shalom.