“Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the Lord has commanded:

If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.

“If a woman makes a vow to the Lord or assumes an obligation while still in her father’s household by reason of her youth, and her father learns of her vow or her self-imposed obligation and offers no objection, all her vows shall stand and every self-imposed obligation shall stand. But if her father restrains her on the day he finds out, none of her vows or self-imposed obligations shall stand; and the Lord will forgive her, since her father restrained her.” (Numbers 30:2-6)

Parasha Matot-Masey: The Vow of a Woman

Two weeks ago, Susan and I heard a rabbi speak to these verses. Her D’var Torah commented on the obvious sexist, patriarchal nature of these laws and how much work there still is to do in overcoming the denial of the same freedom and rights to women that men possess. Later, Susan asked me what I would have talked about had I spoken that morning.

I agreed with the content and tone of the rabbi’s words and might have given a similar sermon.  Probably not as well as she did. When Susan asked me, though, my thoughts went in a different but intimately related direction. They went in the direction of this question: what do we do with laws from the Torah when we find them to be immoral, unjust, archaic?

This question goes to the heart of the accomplishment of Rabbinic Judaism. Likewise, it goes to the heart of living as a liberal Jew today.

The Rabbis Create An Interpretive Tradition

The rabbis who created Judaism as we know it lived in a changed and changing time, in some ways vastly different from the world of their somewhat recent ancestors. They lived amidst Graeco-Roman culture, with its foreign laws and alien ways of thinking.

Like us, the rabbis, too, understood many elements of the Torah to be wrong, impractical, outdated. One of their signal contributions in creating Rabbinic Judaism was to codify an interpretive process by which to maintain loyalty to the sacred text of the Torah, on the one hand, while changing the law when they perceived it to be necessary, on the other. Let me give two examples.

There is a law in the Torah concerning a rebellious son – one who publicly and flagrantly disobeys his parents. The punishment is that he be taken into the midst of the town where the community will stone him to death.

How did the (later) rabbis handle this law? Lo haya v’lo yih’yeh, they said – not once did this ever occur, nor will it ever occur in the future.  Put differently, they negated the law by relegating it to a theoretical abstraction.

Likewise, with loans.  Loans that had not been paid off by the seventh, sabbatical, year were forgiven in that year. Great for the indebted.  Not so great for the creditor. And so, as the latter years of that cycle rolled around creditors ceased lending money, afraid that they would not be paid back. This took a terrible toll on the poor, individually, and on the economy as a whole.

Hillel issued an injunction called the prozbul, a legal maneuver by which the private loan was turned over to the court and thus made public. Public loans were not subject to cancellation by the sabbatical year. Creditors could once again lend to people in need of money. The rabbis found the reality of the Torah law to be in conflict with other Torah principles, such as compassion and supporting people when they are in need, and thus changed it.

Flexibility & Interpretation Today

I cite these examples to make this point: that our tradition has always included flexibility and interpretation in its modus operandi. Those who read the Torah both literally and as if it cannot change adopt a methodology that is foreign to our tradition. Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist – we’re all agreed upon the necessity of interpretation in order to apply the meaning of the Torah to life today.  We differ on methods of interpretation, on what evidence might be brought as dispositive, and on how much and how fast that change might occur.  But the principle is the same.

And so, the changes with regards to women’s status, responsibility and participation that have been made by the liberal portions of the Jewish community – and which are now, slowly, being brought into the liberal Orthodox world – are not found in the laws of the Torah . . . and yet they are. By applying other Torah values – e.g., the dignity of each human being – as well as the best teachings of the modern world – e.g., egalitarianism – we are able to correct the errors/insufficiencies that inevitably exist in the Torah, whether we think the Torah created by our ancestors, or divinely revealed.

Put simply: we do not need to reject the baby with the bathwater, to see the Torah as (only, merely) an ancient text that is woefully archaic and that can never speak to our own day.

Torah, at the center of Jewish living, has spoken to our people in each generation, in each culture, in each locale for a very long time – and will continue to do so.