To Annul Patriarchy One Verse at a Time (Parashat Matot)

The author explores the concepts of vows in this commentary, particularly vows made by women and what these laws say about patriarchal oppression and accountability.

July 28, 2008

By Noach Dzmura

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Parashat Matot
To Annul Patriarchy, One Verse at a Time
by Noach Dzmura on Saturday July 26, 2008 23 Tammuz 5768
Numbers 30:2 – 32:42

I want to discuss three things regarding vows. Two of them originate in Torah, specifically in Parashat Matot, one originates with our Sages, in approximately 600 CE. The first point I want to make note of in our parasha is that vows count as a special kind of law between G-d and an individual. The second (also from the parasha), is that men could annul vows made by women. The third (from our Sages as ritualized in the prayer Kol Nidre) is that vows between an individual and G-d are annulled each year on Yom Kippur – annuled before they happen, thus rendering redundant any later annulment of women’s vows by men. I’ll conclude by showing how this chain of events took the teeth out of patriarchal oppression of women’s power to be held accountable for her own actions, and left authority and accountability in the hands of each one of us.

All vows between God and an individual are binding. We hear it in this week’s parasha: “If a man makes a vow to the Lord … he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” (Numbers 30:3) and later in Deuteronomy 23:22: “When you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not put off fulfilling it; for the LORD your God will require it of you; and you will have incurred guilt.”

I understand from these verses that vows are important and powerful speech acts in a tradition that reveres the generative and binding power of speech. If I vow that I will do a thing for G-d, my word is my bond.

Parashat Matot tells us that not only vows with special formulas (such as the Nazirite vow in Numbers 6), but any vow (nader) or oath (hishba) is granted the force of law. While most halacha is universally applied, vows and oaths are individual. Vows are halacha for one.

The second thing I want to talk about is that, also in this parasha, a father is granted the right to annul any vow made by his daughter, and a husband is granted the right to annul any vow made by his wife. A widowed woman is the only woman free to stand accountable to her own words. In a society where “father” and “husband” are roles that may only be played by men, and “daughter” and “wife” may only be played by women, this ability to control an act of speech sets up a gender hierarchy with men at a higher rung than women.

I find in this passage the birth of the blues. One of a woman’s literal powers of speech in this patriarchal environment is stripped away. This right granted to men who play certain roles in relationship to women reinforces the idea that a woman serves a man before she serves G-d. Orthodox apologists tend to paint the idea of woman as man’s “helpmeet” sympathetically (“ezer knegdo” in Genesis 2: 18 and Genesis 2:20); a helpmeet, in these apologetic terms, is a woman serving alongside her man; they function as a team, a well-oiled machine. But this parasha shows who really dominates this “partnership.” He controls even her speech; this is not “equal and opposite.”

The third thing I want to talk about is the contradictory but also true (since the ninth century CE) idea that all vows for the coming year are annulled before they are made. That is to say, all vows between a human and G-d are rendered invalid and without force every year at Yom Kippur during Kol Nidre (“All Vows”). The text of the prayer we say to render vows invalid goes like this:

All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths. -(High Holyday Prayer Book, Hebrew Publishing Company, NY, 1951)

The prayer refers only to vows made between an individual and G-d, and explicitly does NOT concern vows between between two people, or any other sort of human to human vow.

So now what we have is this: vows are hugely powerful—but essentially impotent—speech acts. So the right to annul a woman’s vows isn’t much of a “right” at all. Given the annulment of all vows at Kol Nidre, the right-to-annul granted to husbands and fathers in the Torah would sound something like this: “You know that vow you made that G-d annulled? I annul it too. So there!” It’s a sort of redundant veto power that renders an already impotent vow even more impotent.

But this is a facile reading of a complicated set of texts with a lot of history behind them. While I am glad to demonstrate a simple reading through which specific patriarchal texts are rendered impotent, I remain troubled by the power relationship outlined in this parasha. As I understand the human community, no one has the right, the obligation or the authority to interfere with a vow between an individual and G-d. I think the parasha, in combination with the Kol Nidre prayer, sets up a situation where a male authority is established in Torah and then revoked by the Sages. Read together, the two texts effectively cancel one another out. Through this move, the Sages effectively take the teeth out of this instance of patriarchal oppression and implicitly place the authority and the obligation to vow our individual relationship with G-d, upon the shoulders of each individual. I think the text, read in combination with the Kol Nidre ritual, generates a subversive message that says, “You are accountable to yourself, your God, and your community. Though someone might annul your vow, you must keep it anyway. It’s between you and me. Anyone may try to mediate our relationship, but none can succeed. You are free. Your words are powerful truths.”