Lean In, Just Don’t Make Any Promises

Why does the Torah allow a man to annul his wife’s vows and not vice versa?

When Justin Trudeau became prime minister of Canada, he made a commitment to appoint an equal number of men and women to his cabinet.  Our new Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a similar pledge whilst on the campaign trail; in the end, we still have twice as many men as women in the new British cabinet.  But why should it matter?  Should women be offered seats at the table simply because they’re women?

This week’s double sedra, Matot-Masei, begins with all the laws of vows, including details of how women are differentiated in that their promises can be overridden by the men of their household.  The Torah isn’t a history book and it’s not just a law book, it’s our guide to life. Why was it necessary to go through all the details of vows?  Why is there a discrepancy between men and women?  And why suddenly mention the vows here at the end of the Book of Numbers?

The Jewish tradition is not a big fan of vows.  In Hilchot Deot [2:1], the Rambam writes, “Our Sages commanded that a person should only abstain from things that the Torah prohibited, and he should not forbid himself via vows and oaths from permissible things.  This is what our Sages said: Is it not enough for you that which the Torah prohibited, that you feel the need to place further restrictions upon yourself?”

If the Torah is not really in favour of vow-making, let’s understand why it appears in our parsha.  Immediately following the laws of vows, the Torah returns to the narrative from the parsha last week and the previous week.  Moshe tells the Israelites to go to war against Midian and avenge their corruption of the young Israelite men, resulting in a plague which killed twenty-four thousand.  Upon their return, the army commanders tell Moshe, “not one man has been lost.”  The Talmud explains [Shabbos 64a] that they meant that no spiritual loss had occurred – despite their earlier moral failings, this time around, no man had fallen prey to his improper desires.

We know that men have always acted inappropriately in war situations.  How did they ensure that every individual soldier would maintain his ethical and spiritual integrity whilst in Midian?

There’s one exception to our general ambivalence towards vow-making.  One is allowed to make a vow if he feels that it will distance him from sin.  So, for example, let’s say you know that you can’t resist the lure of a fresh croissant – to the extent that every time you walk past a non-kosher bakery, an internal conscience struggle begins – ‘What treif could they put into this simple bit of dough, already?’  The solution would be to vow never to walk down a street with a non-kosher bakery.  To many of us that may sound a little extreme, but to the person with the struggle, it might be the only way.

That explains why the Torah digresses to the laws of vows.  ‘Guys, you’re about to go out to war with the Midianites.  You’re going to see those beautiful women again.  Here’s how we’re going to ensure you don’t make the same mistakes as when they appeared in our camp.  You’re going to make a vow to keep your distance from any hint of sin!’

Are vows a good thing?  Clearly they’re not.  They make your life black and white.  Often in life you need the freedom to examine all the angles.  Picture the following imaginary scenario: ‘Sir, this Midianite girl has a cut on her knee.  She needs stitches.’ ‘Sorry, Private Reuben, you’ve vowed not to touch any of the women under any circumstances.’

Does that make any sense? Of course not.  Nevertheless, in order to avoid sin, in certain situations, men need the black-and-white formality of a vow.

And that’s why the Torah is cautious when it comes to women making vows.  Women, our Sages tell us, have ‘bina yeseira’ – a deeper connection to the spirit, which expresses itself in many aspects of life.  First, women’s innate spirituality means that they are less likely to succumb to sin as men.  That’s why men must wear a kippah, while women don’t – men need a constant reminder (like a vow) that G-d is above them, watching their every move.

The second aspect of ‘bina yeseira’ is the sixth sense women have – their ability to see the world in colour.  The knowledge that not everything is black and white.  Had a woman been standing there at the fictitious exchange between the two soldiers above, she would have said, ‘Well, this case must be different!’

That’s the unique contribution women bring to any discussion.   The world isn’t black and white.  And although men might see things that way – whether naturally, or by the choices they’ve made – when women are part of the conversation, they’re able to introduce colour, texture, and a more complete understanding of the situation.

Any intelligent man knows this and appreciates it.  And so when a woman in his household suddenly vows to see things in black and white, you can imagine why he’d be worried.  The indispensable contribution that she brings to any discussion is now being threatened.  Woe to the family where everyone sees the world in black and white!  Consequently, while a man must make an appointment with the Beth Din to have his vow annulled, the Torah has a much quicker, simpler solution for women.

Likewise, that’s why any intelligent man in a leadership position recognizes the importance of having women around the table.  It’s not about affirmative action.  It’s about having the best voices possible at the table.  If you want to understand any situation clearly and completely, it’s vital to have female leaders party to the discussion.  We’re not talking about Beit Din issues – those are black and white – but communal decision-making.

Thank G-d, we live in an era that finally understands what the Torah has said all along – we must always include women’s voices in any important conversation.  And we must avoid any move that may keep us from benefitting from the ‘bina yeseira’ women have to offer!

About the Author
Rabbanit Batya Friedman is the senior rebbetzin of Hamsptead Suburb Garden Synagogue in London, UK. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Brooklyn College and her MBA from the University of Alberta. She previously served the community in Edmonton, AB Canada.
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