The Vows of Women

How can we stimulate and support women to fulfill their dreams?

Commentary on Parashat Matot, Numbers 30:2 - 32:42

I have always been amazed by the power of Kol Nidre, the prayer that introduces the evening service on Yom Kippur. Each year, I marvel at the sheer number of people who put aside all other
commitments in order to be in synagogue, to be present to hear these ancient words. What brings us in the doors? Is it the haunting melody? Is it the threefold repetition of the prayer that moves us toward an emotional crescendo?

Or is it the message of this prayer, which promises to absolve us of our responsibility for any vows that we may make in the coming year? When we make vows, we put into speech our deepest fears and most profound hopes. Like Hannah who vows to dedicate her son to the sanctuary if God grants her a son (I Samuel 1), many of us make various commitments to do certain things or give up certain things that we cherish, in order to avert danger or bring about a hoped-for future.

Yet some vows are rash, regrettable, or unrealizable; some are made under duress. Kol Nidre reminds us that we have the choice to keep or annul our vows, thus affirming our most basic rights to self-expression and self-determination. This is part of what gives both the prayer and its recitation its profound power.

Parashat Matot enumerates various regulations concerning the status of women’s vows (30:3-17). It also describes the circumstances under which a woman’s vow may be annulled. We read that if her father or husband hears the vow on the day that she makes it, the vow can be nullified. The woman’s personal status–whether she is a child, married, or divorced–will determine the status and power of the vow and whether she may fulfill it. Although she possesses the ability to make a vow, she may have to abandon her oaths and vows if the male authority figure in her life hears them. Given that fact, what are her options? She could take her chances with vowing and being heard.

Or, to avoid her vow being annulled, she might either choose not to take on the responsibility involved in making an oath or a vow, or she might opt to make her vow but without anyone hearing her; in both of these options, she would be forced to follow, and be complicit in maintaining, the culture’s attitude toward her desire for personal expression. She herself thus participates in her own silencing, because only by vowing without being heard, will she fulfill the mandate that her vow establishes. She acts by pretending that she has not acted. She can transgress the restrictions only by forcing herself to take part in them at the same time. She must betray herself to be true to herself.

While we think we are free from these kinds of constraints, this is often not quite true. As mothers, when we chose to take emotional and physical care of our children, we voluntarily relinquish the freedom we might have enjoyed at an earlier time. Similarly, we may accept professional positions that do not sufficiently reflect our capabilities, in order to be available to support a beloved spouse, partner, or aging parent.

We may not explicitly associate such situations with vow making or breaking, but in a certain important way, the relationship to vows exists. Like vow-making in the Bible, women’s aspirations, spoken or not, are promises we make, even if only to ourselves. When we give them up because of external pressures, we pay a price.

On one hand, we live in a time when, as women, we are blessedly free from the kind of controls that Numbers prescribes. On the other hand, we find ourselves within a web of relationships where we often give up what we had promised to ourselves, or we redirect our abilities. The stereotype of the Jewish mother may represent, in some ways, a woman’s efforts to take power through the very vehicles that entrap her — by making a nice home, cooking gourmet meals, and having successful children.

Some may see these concessions as choices; others may see them as abandonment of self. We want to fulfill our responsibilities and live up to our expectations as spouses, mothers, and daughters; but we also want to be heard, to play an active role in our communities, to see ourselves and to be seen as powerful. We are aware that our culture could not survive if we sometimes did not voluntarily place our own needs as secondary.

Yet, we are not always aware of the price some of us pay for that choice. We see in our society rising rates of depression, eating disorders, premature sexuality, and self-destructive behaviors. A 2002 report of the American Psychological Association indicates that of the 17 million Americans who suffer from depression yearly, “women are twice as likely as men to experience a major depressive episode. Depression may occur at any age during a woman’s life with certain events like puberty, pregnancy, perimenopause, trauma, substance abuse and quality of relationships.” The report also notes that current research shows that women typically “place their needs secondary to those of others.” One cannot simplistically attribute depression to a single cause, but it is difficult not to wonder to what extent the thwarting of one’s longings and hopes, either by implicit social pressures or explicit ones, plays a role.

How can we can stimulate and support, rather than stifle, women who long to fulfill their ambitions and dreams, so that their vows to themselves — and others — can become a reality? As a Jewish community we are still working on answers to such questions, both in the personal and institutional realms. We no longer need to be complicit in the denial and abandonment of self that pervades our culture. Instead, we can speak honestly and openly about our lives and our choices. No longer must we voice our desires in an undertone, hoping that no one will hear. Instead, we can search to find — whether in studying the Torah or participating in the world — the truth of our lives that will help us to find the truth in God’s teachings, so that we can live in a more just relationship with our loved ones and with our God.

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

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