Human Rights In Progress (Slowly)

Commentary on Parshat Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2 – 36:13)

This double Torah portion is — to put it mildly — troubling. It clearly treats women as lesser beings than men and talks of a genocide committed by our ancestors 3,000 years before the word was even invented. It is especially troubling since, before Deuteronomy was added to the Torah, this was literally the Torah’s parting words. 

But when we study Torah in its historical context, we can better understand what it was actually trying to teach with these laws and stories. For example, Judaism has been condemned for the better part of the last 2,000 years for being a religion based on vengeance. The “proof text” is the famous quote about “an eye for an eye” (Leviticus 24:20). But that statement was originally made when the major extant law code was the code of Hammurabi. That code set out a schedule of punishments based on the class of the perpetrator vs. the class of the victim — with the upper-class person always getting the lesser punishment when s/he was the perpetrator and the higher reward when the victim. The Hebrew text makes it quite clear that it is talking about equal justice for all — no matter your wealth or social status. If only we could achieve that today. (That we still live in a world where your wealth more often than not determines your ability to hire skilled legal representation simply shows that we have a long way to go.)  

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So let’s apply the same reasoning to our portion. It opens with a discussion of the sanctity of vows. Men have an absolute obligation to fulfill them, while the Torah provides differing rules for women depending on their age and marital status. If unmarried, her father can annul her vow and, if married, her husband can. We are outraged by such a double standard. Is this the Jewish idea of equal justice? Actually, the very fact that the discussion took place indicates that there must have been some controversy. Over 3,000 years ago, most societies didn’t even raise the question. Women were considered property to be handed from father to husband, and their vows didn’t really count. For that matter, in the American legal system, women only stopped being considered the property of their husbands in the 19th century. In the traditional wedding ceremony we watch in the movies (usually based on the Episcopal service) the father re-enacts this status by escorting his daughter down the aisle and handing her to her husband. 

Further on in this portion, we have another discussion of women’s rights. Zelophehad dies leaving no sons to inherit his property — only five daughters, who petition for the right to inherit. Again, this is an example of our ancestors recognizing an injustice over 3,000 years ago, while there are many societies to this day that still automatically disinherit women. The rule was made that, in that circumstance, women can inherit. 

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Thus, this parsha captures a snapshot of the evolution of women’s rights, which expand from limited recognition of their vows to limited rights of inheritance. Women’s rights will be further expanded by the rabbinic institution of the ketuba (marriage contract), guaranteeing certain rights to women within marriage. Archaeologists now tell us that, by the time of the Bar Kochba rebellion (ca. 132 CE) widows and divorcees had essentially the same rights as adult men, including signing contracts and owning land.

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Most troubling of all in this parsha is, of course, the advocacy of genocide against the Midianites. God is “quoted” as saying that if our ancestors don’t murder them, “those who are left of them shall be as barbs in your eyes; as spines in your sides . . .”  Unfortunately, I feel compelled to point out that this was the same rationale that Heinrich Himmler used (in a speech to the S.S.) to justify the mass murder of Jewish children. The only thing that can be said about our ancestors’ bloodthirsty wish was that they never actually carried it out. It is clear from biblical history that the various Canaanite tribes that were supposedly wiped out in the “conquest” continued to live and occupy the land for many years.

So Judaism and Jewish moral values continue, as they always have, to evolve — frequently one or two moral steps ahead of its neighbors, but not much more. As Rabbi Alan Miller z”l, who was the rabbi at Manhattan’s Society for the Advancement of Judaism for over 25 years, once said about our ancestors, “They were no better than their neighbors, but at least they felt guilty about it.” It is up to us to continue this evolution and reach for the goal set out in Leviticus in the dictum of “an eye for an eye,” which concludes with “you shall have one standard for the citizen and the stranger alike, for I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 24:22)

Rabbi J. Fred Schwalb is the retired rabbi of Hebrew Congregation of Somers, NY. He is currently President of American Friends of Beit Morasha Jerusalem.