The double sedra Matot-Masei could be subtitled “The Anti-feminists’ Revenge”, because it begins and ends with the subversion of a legal concession given to women.
At the very beginning of Matot, God commands that if a man makes a vow or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, then “he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips” (Numbers, 30:3). God then commands that if a woman makes a vow or assumes an obligation, she is also bound by the pledge. Wonderful – so a woman’s word is to be taken as seriously as a man’s? Well, not quite. The subversion is that if the women is still in her father’s house “in her youth”, then her father can annul the obligation (whether or not she wants him to); and if she marries while her vow or commitment is still in force, her husband can annul it; and if she makes a vow or commitment when married, her husband can annul it. Only the vow of a widow or divorced woman is binding and cannot be annulled by herself or anyone else.
At the end of Masei, God subverts the famous concession earlier made to the daughters of Zelophehad. In sedra Pinchas, the five daughters of Zelophehad – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah – asked to be allowed to inherit their father’s land, since he had no son, so that his name would not be lost to his clan. God agreed, and added that a daughter should inherit the property of any man who had no son. But now the elders of their clan approach Moses to say that if the daughters of Zelophehad marry someone from another tribe, their portion will be lost to the tribe and pass to their husband’s tribe. God’s ruling? They may marry anyone they wish, provided he is from a clan in their father’s tribe. The five of them obey the ruling – indeed they go further and all marry their first cousins, the sons of their father’s brothers.
Rashi tried to soften the blow in both cases. Rashi (1040-1105) had three daughters – Yocheved, Miriam, and Rachel – but no son. There is some evidence for the legend that they were intelligent and that he taught them Torah and Talmud. In the case of vows, Rashi says that “in her youth” refers only to the period of less than a year between childhood and womanhood (i.e., until she is 13, the age at which a boy becomes a man). That still leaves an older married woman’s vows subject to her husband not objecting, but it would have been difficult for Rashi to go further, given the cultural norms on women’s rights that prevailed then, and indeed until very recently.
In the case of the daughters of Zelophehad, Rashi’s response is interesting: he focused on what he argued was their great intelligence. As Rabbi Hara Person says in her commentary on Masei in The Women’s Torah Commentary (edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, 2000), “Though the daughters have taken the risk of pushing the limits, they also know that limits are not infinitely elastic.” In a patrilineal and patrilocal society, women are to some extent aliens or transients within the family of their residence. But the daughters of Zelophehad “will be neither aliens nor transients within the households of their first cousins, and thus they will have a greater chance for some level of authority.” They, who acted twice in unison, will also stay close to one another. “As a group, they are clearly a force with which the Torah must contend. Sisterhood is indeed powerful.”
Robert Stone is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue and Finchley Reform Synagogue