People often ask about the Torah’s view of women. A discussion about vows offers a surprising insight.
The Torah forbids many things such as shellfish, bacon, work during the Sabbath, collecting loans during the Sabbatical, and others. The Toral also permits many things. Yet, the Torah allows us to take vows to forbid anything that the Torah permits. For example, should you decide, you may swear off all cheeses or all wines or all work on Tuesdays or anything you choose even if it is kosher.
Why is this? Doesn’t the fact that the Torah permits something imply that it is good for us? If it is good, why may we take a vow to forbid them? Because not all things that are permitted are necessary. In fact, they are often harmful. Even things that are good for us should be taken in moderation. When we find ourselves unable to moderate our use of certain items, we can use this biblical provision to forbid them.
So, if I often overindulge in a certain area and find that it makes me less refined or spiritually sensitive, I may take a vow against these things. For example, if I notice that my friendship with certain people leads me to inappropriate behavior, I can take a vow against consorting with them.
Then the Torah throws us a curveball. The Torah tells us that if an unmarried girl takes such a vow her father may unilaterally annul it and if a married woman takes such a vow her husband may unilaterally annul it. Why is that? Isn’t a woman’s material and spiritual health just as important as that of a man?
The truth is that her material and spiritual health is not compromised because the one who annuls the vow assumes responsibility for it. If she is vulnerable to certain indulgences and vows not to indulge, her father or husband will need to shield her from those indulgences if they annul her vow.
But that doesn’t satisfy us. In the ancient day when women lacked self determination and depended on menfolk in their family, this might have made sense. As the ones responsible to provide for her physical integrity, they might also assume responsibility for her spiritual integrity. However, today, when women have self determination, how do we make sense of this law?
G-d surely foresaw that we would reach an enlightened age when women would be emancipated and realize their full potential. When G-d gave the Torah, He spoke to our age too. So, what did G-d have in mind for our generation when He gave us this law?
Inner, and Outer Will
Every Mitzvah in the Torah has a spiritual parallel and this law is no exception. We each have an inner and an outer will. We each harbor a deep desire to be refined, modest, content, chaste, devout, generous, kind, gentle, pure, G-dly, and spiritual. Yet, on an external dimension, we seek gratification and indulgence; we don’t want to be impeded in our pursuit of pleasure, enjoyment, and satisfaction.
The relationship between these two dimensions is analogous to that of husband and wife. The inner will—our spiritual and emotional dimension, is analogous to the wife because women tend to be gifted with spiritual and emotional intelligence. Our outer will—our material and tactile dimension is analogous to the husband because men are often gifted with brute physical strength and an indominable drive.
Though we enjoy our untrammeled pursuit of our every desire, we are aware (even on the surface) of a deeper wish to transcend such tactile pleasures. Every so often we feel a yearning to be free of these shackles; a desire to live a pure gentle life suffused with faith, kindness, and good works.
If we are wise, we take advantage of these fleeting moments of genuine introspection and make firm commitments, solidified, and made permanent by the strength of a vow. Although we genuinely enjoy certain friendships, we vow to avoid them if they prompt us to negative behavior. Though we enjoy certain proclivities, we vow to avoid them if they make us less sensitive to the plight and needs of others.
We need these vows because we are on the beginning of our spiritual journey. Our inner and outer desires are not yet synchronized. At this point, we cannot call the relationship between our inner and outer selves a marriage. It is at best a form of dominance. Our internal desires are muted, and our outer wishes rule the day. Thus, to even the playing field, we make an unyielding vow during these fleeting “inner will” moments to commit us even when, in the future, we will be once again in the grip of our outer will.
Our conscious minds, our external selves, don’t enjoy or appreciate the vow. It is taken out of necessity. But G-d, our father in heaven, appreciates it very much. Our father looks at how much we want to change rather than how much we need to change. Therefore, even when we avoid inappropriate behavior because of our vow, G-d views it as if it were done without a vow. This is the deeper meaning of the father annulling the vow. He doesn’t annul it in actual fact, but He chooses to view it as if we did it with a complete heart, rather than because our hands were tied by the vow.
As we practice a more refined lifestyle for an extended period, we gradually learn to enjoy and appreciate it. Our conscious minds stop screaming for their former overindulgences and corrupting pleasures. Instead, we take pride in our newfound refinement. We take pleasure from kindness and generosity. We enjoy our spiritual sensitivity and gentle comportment toward others. The outer will learns to appreciate the inner will’s lifestyle. Now that our external self recognizes our internal self as valuable and equal, we can call the relationship a marriage. At this point, the husband says to the wife, I am no longer in need a vow to rein me in. The husband has in effect annulled the vow and assumed responsibility.
We have thus flipped the chart. The vow was never for the wife’s—the inner will’s benefit. Our internal selves never needed a vow to behave this way. The vow was for the husband, the outer will’s benefit. Once the external self adapted to the rhythms of the inner self, the vow became unnecessary and obsolete. The husband has, in effect, annulled it.
A New Age
Historically, men played a dominant role in marriage because their brute strength was critical to survival. The woman’s emotional and spiritual intelligence was less critical to survival and was under-appreciated. When one is consumed with survival, one has little time and headspace to worry about emotional health.
As we grew more prosperous and secure, our desire and need for emotional and spiritual intelligence became more acute. Concurrently, the feminine contribution of women was more valued by society and women assumed equal status.
The Torah tells us that Mashiach will usher in an era of unlimited material abundance and our sole interest will be the pursuit of spiritual intelligence. Concurrently, the woman will become not only equal, but dominant in the relationship with man.
This is presaged in the contemporary age by the rule of vows in which the husband declares that he has transitioned to his wife’s perspective and is thus no longer in need of a vow to constrain his behavior.