Parashat Mattot

No Neutrality: Silence Is Assent

The laws of nullifying vows teach us that our silence and inaction in the face of contemporary injustice and oppression is akin to assenting to it.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from American Jewish University.

So much goes on every day, that it seems impossible to keep up with the array of human activity. Troops march to different parts of the globe, unemployment and disease strike specific groups of people, natural disasters ravage a variety of communities, our environment succumbs to human greed, our politicians legislate, initiate and posture. With so many different activities occurring at the same time, all of them of vital importance, how can we possibly keep up?

Because there is simply so much to follow, and there seems to be so little an individual can do to affect any change at all, many of us simply respond by doing nothing at all. Life will go on without us, we reason, so why get all bothered and upset about things we cannot change?

Today's Torah portion speaks, in the language of its own age, to this timeless question--when to get involved. Parashat Mattot addresses the legal issue of the nullification of vows. It records the ancient law that a woman's vows can be nullified by her husband, provided that he cancels her vows immediately upon hearing them. If he delays in silence, her vow becomes irrevocably binding.

While many moderns are troubled by the power of men to override the vows of women, it is also striking that the Torah insists that the husband either use his power instantly, or lose it forever. Why? After all, if he has the authority to nullify her oath, then why can't he choose to exercise that power later on?

The answer given by the Talmud is that "silence is like assent." Once the husband knows what his wife has sworn, he becomes a participant in her oath. At that point, he can either object immediately--disassociating himself from her words and thereby nullifying them--or he can remain silent, which effectively links the husband and the vow.

Silence is assent. How often do we face acts of injustice or callousness with silence? A derogatory joke in our presence, an act of selfishness or cruelty, or simply reading of political oppression in our newspapers--all of these instances summon us to choose a side. We can either verbalize our opposition immediately, or--through our silence--we become allies of the act or words we abhor. There is no neutrality. Silence is assent.

Our society is producing homeless people in record numbers. Unemployment among minority males and violence in some minority communities have shattered normal human living for many in our inner cities. Our schools produce illiterate children who grow up to become unskilled and poorly motivated adults. Women are still, according to the most recent statistics, unfairly burdened and inadequately compensated. Jews, gays, blacks and others are frequent objects of bigoted violence. This ought to be a time of profound embarrassment to religious people.

Far from agreeing to serve as God's partners in Creation, establishing God's rule of justice and love, we have effectively turned our backs on the welfare of many of our fellow Americans and on the health of our planet. How do we participate in these evils? By not opposing them in public, we allow our silence to speak instead of our words and our deeds.

Rabbi Judah Loew, the great Maharal of Prague (16th century) wrote, "While a person may be individually pious, such good will pale in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil. Not only will such piety not avert the impending evil, but such a pious person will be accountable for having been able to prevent it and not doing so."

In the midst of the dark ages of his time, the Maharal understood that his obligation as a being in covenant with God was to represent God's light and God's passion, despite the powerful forces mustered in opposition.

In the midst of the current dark age, we too need to remember our eternal calling--to sanctify God in the midst of the people. By feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, pursuing peace and identifying with the weak, we move from silence to eloquence. We provide God with hands and a voice. There is no neutrality. Silence is assent.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.