D’var Torah: 29 July 2016 – Deborah Blausten

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 29 July 2016

I woke up this morning to a snapchat message from a university friend- it was a photo of him and his grandma. Whilst I love seeing photos of my friends and their families, this was a particularly special photo, because he is a delegate to the democratic national convention in Philadelphia, and his 90-something year old grandma, born before American women could vote, was sitting beside him as his ‘alternate’ as together they watched the first female presidential candidate accept her nomination.

It’s an exciting moment in history- politics aside, every moment like last night is a tiny crack in the glass ceiling. As one Rabbi I know put it, he feels he is on the brink of being able to turn to his daughter and honestly tell her there is nothing off limits to her because of her gender- even being president of the USA. If you’re anything like me, it’s so easy to get swept up in the moment, but there’s nothing like Torah to bring you back down to earth.

Tomorrow morning in shul we’ll read parashat matot. It’s about vows. We make vows all the time, from mundane business transactions to not-so-mundane marriage proposals. These vows, the torah tells us, are binding. They are not to be broken. Or at least that is unless they are made by a woman. For, as our parasha details, the vows of women and girls can be annulled by their fathers or their husbands- depending on whose jurisdiction they are under. Male custodians have 24 hours to annul a vow a woman makes, after which time it stands- plenty of time to pull back an unruly woman from whatever trouble she’d got herself into through the dangerous exercise of her own free will. That might sound somewhat sarcastic, and it is a little, but it’s also commentary- I use the words custodian and jurisdiction deliberately here because our text comes from a time when women didn’t have agency, and any behaviour to the contrary was deeply disruptive to the social order.

So, how do we deal with a text like this- seemingly a lesson in patriarchy and denying women’s agency, on a week like this- where we, and perhaps we particularly as an egalitarian community, celebrate our changing world and the continued empowerment of women and girls?

One crucial detail for me is the fact that whilst the Torah tells us that women’s vows CAN be annulled, it doesn’t instruct that they SHOULD be. It places a huge amount of power in the hands of the men in the story, but does not prescribe how they use that power. The lesson I take from our text is rooted in this- that as much as this parasha is a lesson in patriarchy it also holds a lesson in what it means to be an ally, to acknowledge the role you can play in someone else’s liberation.

When we hold positions of power and privilege we can wield those over others, or we can use that power to give them a voice. Perhaps that’s the real lesson of this week- from both torah and from our world, we must use our light to give light to others, and to the world.

Shabbat Shalom.