Women’s Oath to the Torah
by Rabbi Geri Newburge
As I prepared for this “Voices for WRJ” I was quite intrigued with the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion, Matot, about an individual’s vows to God. Particular note is given in these verses to vows sworn by females. The text explains that either a father or husband, upon hearing the vow, can revoke it. If he does not annul the vow at that point, the woman must fulfill the obligation. In either case, ultimate control over the situation lies with the male. As I fully disapprove of any kind of sexism, I turned to my usual commentaries to find something creative, instructive, and interesting about this a midrash or insightful interpretation to share with you. While my search was hardly exhaustive of the entirety of Jewish texts, nothing truly gripping presented itself.
Yet in my studies I found something truly powerful and new. In Tractate Nedarim (“nedarim” means vows), the volume in the Babylonian Talmud dedicated to all issues pertaining to vows, the rabbis remind us that not only were we all at Sinai when the Torah was given but we all swore an oath to study Torah when we were there. This includes women. The men did not invalidate our oath (or if they did, no one is talking about it!). In addition, the Talmudic text asks, hypothetically, can one swear to learn a particular text or study at a certain time- or would that be an invalid oath, since we already swore at Sinai to this kind of study.
So, this begs the questions: what constitutes Torah study? And could we vow to do it in a special way? Torah study, at the bare minimum, is to recite the Shema, from the Book of Deuteronomy, in the morning and the evening as is instructed in the V’ahavta, also from Deuteronomy. And, in fact, we can make a much more substantial undertaking for our Torah study. Our congregations offer regular Torah study, or perhaps we commit to creating new and innovative ways to engage with Torah, through a chevruta (studying with a partner regularly) or within our chapters of Women of Reform Judaism and its incredible Women’s Commentary. Any commitment to study Jewish text is fulfilling our Sinaitic vow, not simply at its basic level, but in its fullest sense.
So let this week’s parashah be an invitation to you for thoughtful, regular, and compelling study of our sacred writings. There is always something to learn, and insights to be gained and shared.
Wishing all of you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Geri Newburge serves at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, NJ