If a woman makes a vow to the Lord or assumes an obligation… while still in her father’s household… and her father learns of her vow… if he restrains her on the day he finds out, none of her vows or self-imposed obligations shall stand… If she should marry while the vow… is in force, and her husband learns of it… and her husband restrains her, on the day he finds out, he thereby annuls her vow which was in force or the commitment to which she bound herself… (Bamidbar 30:4-6,7-9.)
If the man in her life hears her utter a vow,
he can turn in a trice and render it void.
What if her oath bears her deepest-held hopes –
will she promise in secret, or not vow at all?
If she has a vision which the world might reject,
will she give up her dream, or dare seek her Self?
These laws reflect an age when women were subordinated to a father or husband. Already by the time of the Talmud, the Rabbis restricted the application of these laws. Nonetheless, the image here of the woman being subservient seems inescapable. If we examine how woman fare in society nowadays, we can see that gender equality is still far from being complete. The Global Gender Gap Report ranks countries according to their gender gaps, and the scores reflect the inequality between women and men. The report assesses countries on how well they are dividing their resources and opportunities among their male and female populations, regardless of the overall levels of these resources and opportunities. The report examines four critical areas of inequality between men and women in 130 economies around the globe (encompassing over 93% of the world’s population). The criteria are: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; political empowerment; and health and survival. The three highest ranking countries have closed over 84% of their gender gaps, while the lowest ranking country has closed only a little over 50% of its gender gap. (Iceland scores highest out of 135, UK is 18th, US 22nd, Israel 56th, Iran 127th, Saudi Arabia 131st, Yemen 135th.) (From the Global Gender Gap Report 2012, published by the World Economic Forum.)
In an article entitled The Vows of Women, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson points out that we see in this parasha, that although the woman possesses the ability to make a vow, she may have to abandon her oaths and vows if the male authority figure in her life hears them. Given that fact, Rabbi Koch Ellenson asks what are the woman’s options? She says, “She could take her chances with vowing and being heard. Or, to avoid her vow being annulled, she might either choose not to take on the responsibility involved in making an oath or a vow, or she might opt to make her vow but without anyone hearing her; in both of these options, she would be forced to follow, and be complicit in maintaining, the culture’s attitude toward her desire for personal expression. She herself thus participates in her own silencing, because only by vowing without being heard, will she fulfill the mandate that her vow establishes. She acts by pretending that she has not acted. She can transgress the restrictions only by forcing herself to take part in them at the same time. She must betray herself to be true to herself.”
Rabbi Koch Ellenson cites a 2002 report of the American Psychological Association which indicates that of the 17 million Americans who suffer from depression yearly, “women are twice as likely as men to experience a major depressive episode.” The report also notes that current research shows that women typically “place their needs secondary to those of others.” Rabbi Koch Ellenson points out, “one cannot simplistically attribute depression to a single cause, but it is difficult not to wonder to what extent the thwarting of one’s longings and hopes, either by implicit social pressures or explicit ones, plays a role.” She says the community should be moving towards supporting, rather than stifling women who long to fulfill their ambitions and dreams, so that their vows to themselves – and others – can become a reality. She adds, “women no longer need to be complicit in the denial and abandonment of self that pervades our culture… they no longer need to voice their desires in an undertone, hoping that no one will hear.”