Mattot: Silence is assent

If a woman makes a vow to the Lord or assumes an obligation, while still in her father’s house by reason of her youth; and her father learns of her vow, or her self-imposed obligation, and her father remains silent, then all her vows shall stand, and every self-imposed obligation shall stand. But if her father restrains her on the day that he hears; not one of her vows, or of her self-imposed obligations shall stand; and the Lord shall forgive her, because her father restrained her. (B’midbar 30: 4-6)

The guests around the table
are savoring the meal
raising crystal glasses
amid good-natured talk.
When a sudden lull is countered
with a denigrating joke
targeting a group of others:
women, elders, homeless, gays –
or those of different origin
(there is no dearth of candidates) –
I might sit there uncomfortably
and hold my laughter back
yet if I swallow my response
and do not say a word
then by my very reticence
I signify assent.

Most of the opening chapter of Parashat Mattot is devoted to the annulment of vows made by women. The verses cited above are frequently described as reflecting an age when women were subordinated to a father or a husband (see a previous post from 2014 and thus as having less relevance in modern society. However, it is edifying to leave aside momentarily the seemingly antiquated aspects and examine the details.
In a commentary on the parasha from 2002,, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes that the Torah insists that the father or husband acts (either endorses or annuls) as soon as he hears of the oath. If he delays, he can do nothing. Rabbi Shavit Artson wonders why the man cannot make a decision to get involved later. He says, “Today’s Torah portion speaks, in the language of its own age, to this timeless question – when to get involved.” He notes that the Talmud [Yevamot 88a] teaches that “shetika ke’hoda’ah – silence is like assent.” Once the father (or husband) knows what the woman has sworn, he himself is a party to that oath. Unless he voices his disapproval immediately, thus nullifying her words, his silence makes him an accomplice in her vow.
Rabbi Shavit Artson says “Silence is assent. How often do we face acts of injustice or callousness with silence? A derogatory joke in our presence, an act of selfishness or cruelty, or simply reading of political oppression in our newspapers – all of these instances summon us to choose a side. We can either verbalize our opposition immediately, or – through our silence – we become allies of the act or words we abhor. There is no neutrality. Silence is assent.”
He continues, describing injustices in our own societies: the increase in homeless people; higher unemployment rates among minorities; lower rates of literacy among less affluent children leading to a poverty cycle; ongoing bias against women who are less well-paid then their male counterparts; prejudice and bigotry resulting in violence against gays. Rabbi Shavit Artson adds “This ought to be a time of profound embarrassment to religious people.” He contends that far from partnering God in maintaining the world justly and compassionately, we often turn our backs on the welfare of others. He says “How do we participate in these evils? By not opposing them in public, we allow our silence to speak instead of our words and our deeds.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson cites Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betsalel the Maharal of Prague (born between 1512 and 1526 – 1609) “While a person may be individually pious, such good will pale in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil. Not only will such piety not avert the impending evil, but such a pious person will be accountable for having been able to prevent it and not doing so.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson comments “In the midst of the dark ages of his time, the Maharal understood that his obligation as a being in covenant with God was to represent God’s light and God’s passion, despite the powerful forces mustered in opposition.
“In the midst of the current dark age, we too need to remember our eternal calling – to sanctify God in the midst of the people. By feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, pursuing peace and identifying with the weak, we move from silence to eloquence. We provide God with hands and a voice. There is no neutrality. Silence is assent.”

In his commentary from 2005 on the same issue,, Rabbi Barry Leff notes that the Talmud has an entire tractate devoted to the laws of vows. He adds that the medieval Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (c.1475 – 1550) teaches “When a person has the ability to protest and remains silent, his silence is similar to verbal consent. When you do not say something to disagree, it is as if you agree with what was said or done.”
Rabbi Leff adds that when we are forbidden (in the Ten Commandments) to bear false witness against our neighbor, the rabbis understand this to include bearing false witness by not speaking up. He says, “For example, under Jewish law, you need two witnesses to be prosecuted for a crime. If there is one witness, and you stand next to that witness, making it look like you are a witness with him, when you are not, you have borne false witness – you have tried to make someone believe something that is not true with your silence, by just standing there. And you would be considered guilty of violating this commandment.”
In the episode at the end of Parashat Baha’alotcha (B’midbar 12: 1-16) we learn that Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses because of “the Kushite woman” [a reference to his wife Tsiporah]. The text says “Vatedaber Miriam ve’Aharon which literally means “Miriam spoke, and Aaron” or possibly “Miriam spoke with Aaron”. The medieval Spanish commentator Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089 – c.1167) picking up on the feminine singular conjugation of the verb “to speak”, teaches that Miriam speaks while Aaron says nothing. Thus God, we learn, is incensed and reprimands them both. (Miriam is then stricken with leprosy, Aaron appeals to Moses who then prays for Miriam to be healed. After a seven day exclusion from the camp, she is readmitted and the people continue journeying.)

Finally in a commentary from 2011,, Rabbi Laura Geller describes an email sent to her, among other people on a list of email addressees.
“I recently received an e-mail with the subject line “The Arab Mentality.” It described a Palestinian woman who had been badly burned and successfully treated in Israel, only to be arrested later for attempting to infiltrate Israel’s borders as a suicide bomber…
“As I often do when I receive e-mails like this, I consulted with the Anti-Defamation League to see if the story was true, and indeed it was. The author of the article was a medical doctor in Israel. What the article didn’t mention is that he is also a member of Moledet, a right-wing Israeli political party with an agenda. The labeling of this posting “The Arab Mentality” is like an anti-Semite titling a posting about Bernie Madoff “The Jewish Mentality.”
“I get a lot of e-mails like this — e-mails describing situations, sometimes true and often not true, that malign Arabs and Muslims as a group. I’m never sure how to respond. The easiest thing to do is to simply delete them. But this was sent by a congregant, a thoughtful person, engaged and passionate about Israel, a person I admire. And if I just deleted the message, what was I saying by my silence? Other congregants were on the same list; they knew I had seen it, too.”
Rabbi Geller continues that what she learned from Parashat Mattot partly fueled her decision to respond. She too notes that the veto by the woman’s father or husband has to be on the same day that he hears. She cites the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law 67:11] which says “He can only cancel the vow within the day he heard it. That is, if he heard the vow at the beginning of the evening, he may cancel it all night and the entire following day. If he heard it close to the time that the stars appear, he can cancel it only until the stars appear. Beyond that time he cannot cancel it. …”
She too cites the Talmud’s injunction “silence is like assent.” She continues “Once you know what the promise is, if you don’t speak up, it is as though you are also responsible for it. Once you know what is going on, if you don’t speak up, you are also responsible. Someone forwards a derogatory e-mail that tarnishes all Arabs and I delete it? “Silence is consent.””
Rabbi Geller quotes the Talmud “Whoever has the ability to prevent his household from sin and does not, is accountable for the sins of his household; if he could do so with his fellow citizens and does not, he is accountable for his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is accountable for the whole world.” (Talmud Shabbat 54b).
Rabbi Geller concludes, “So maybe I can’t prevent the whole world from sin, or my community or even my family. But still I am accountable if I do nothing.
“So I responded: “I am not sure that sharing e-mails like this is necessarily helpful in the ongoing discussion of what is best for Israel. You may be interested to know that the author is not an apolitical medical doctor. He is a former member of Moledet and now in the National Union — a right-wing party in the Knesset. While the story appears to be true, he wants people to know the story in order to support a particular political position. This is a not a story about the ‘Arab mentality’ in general. It is rather the story of a particular Arab woman.
“This week’s Torah portion asks us to be careful about what we say, the vows and promises we make. And it also demands of us to be careful about what we don’t say, because “silence is consent.” ”


Mattot: Safely home

Moses replied to the Gadites and the Reubenites, “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (B’midbar 32:6)

After fleeing oppression,
endless migration and
searching for sanctuary:
the end is in sight.

The quest almost over
yet all is not finished
there remains one more river
you all have to cross.

You want a safe haven –
your brothers have none:
until all are settled
no-one is home.

In a commentary on Parashat Mattot entitled The Wandering People,, Rabbi Elliot R. Kukla invites us to close our eyes for a moment and imagine the one place in the world which conjures up feelings of safety and security. She suggests that most of us will visualize our home – whether that of our childhood or of our adult life, and adds, “Home represents true safety. Home is the beginning and ending of each day’s and each lifetime’s journey.”
The statistics on World Refugee Day (in June) 2015 reported that the number of forcibly displaced refugees worldwide is 59.5 million.
During the past year, conflict and persecution forced an average of 42,500 persons per day to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere, either within the borders of their countries or in other countries.
Developing countries host over 86% of the world’s refugees, compared to 70% ten years ago.
In 2014, the country hosting the largest number of refugees was Turkey, with 1.59 million refugees. By the end of 2014, Syria had become the world’s top source country of refugees, overtaking Afghanistan, which had held this position for more than three decades. Today, on average, almost one out of every four refugees is Syrian, with 95 per cent located in surrounding countries.
Last year, 51% of refugees were under 18 years old. This is the highest figure for child refugees in more than a decade.
Rabbi Kukla notes, “The story of displacement and the search for a safe haven lies deep within our communal and individual Jewish histories.” He adds, “Much of the Torah is focused around the search for home. This week’s Torah portion, Mattot, begins to bring to a close the book of Numbers, which is wholly concerned with the people’s journey out of slavery in Egypt and the pursuit of a home in the Promised Land.”
We read in Mattot how the people reach the land just over the Jordan River from the Promised Land. The tribes of Reuben and Gad who own much livestock, see that this location is suitable for their needs and want to stop and build their homes on this side of the Jordan. However, when they suggest this to Moses, he argues fiercely, believing that they are only addressing their own welfare. He says they are so close to home and are now deserting their brothers in their struggle to find a home for themselves. Once they hear Moses’ rebuke, these two tribes agree to help the rest of the people and ensure they are safely ensconced, before returning to their own allotments. Rabbi Kukla says, “The message of the Torah is clear. Everyone in the community must have a safe place to be before any of us consider ourselves at home.”
He adds, “In the contemporary world there are myriad people in need of a safe home… There are millions of people who, like the ancient Hebrews, are vulnerable and homeless.
“These numbers represent a global crisis and yet we seldom discuss it. Jews know about wanderings and have a particular ability to speak to the rights of displaced peoples. Three generations of my own family span seven countries and possess nine different native tongues…This story is a typical Jewish family narrative. The story of displacement lies deep within our communal and individual Jewish histories. Narratives of fleeing oppression and wandering in search of home lie at the heart of our most sacred texts, inform our most cherished relationships, and have shaped our individual identities as Jews.
“Jews have a powerful and intimate relationship to migration and the search for home. When we dare to tell our stories within the widest possible global context, we connect our sacred and familial memories of wandering to the ongoing global impact of violence and displacement. We have a unique voice that we can lift up to educate and advocate for the rights of displaced persons everywhere and for fair immigration laws…
“In the coming weeks, as we finish reading the Book of Numbers, may we lift our voices and call out for the right of each and every human being to have a home in the fullest sense of the word, a sanctuary where human dignity can safely unfold.”

Mattot: A woman’s vow

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.”