This Week In Torah
Parshat Matot: I swear I should be educated
We as Jews are keenly aware of the power of our words. By our words we deem food kosher, we separate Shabbat from the rest of the workweek, and we forgive each other on Yom Kippur. In biblical times, where few people were literate, a person’s word could be formalized as an oath, a contract with one’s self or with another person. In either case, God served as a silent witness and the final judge were the oath to be broken.
This week’s parshah, Matot, starts off by examining under what circumstances a self-imposed oath can stand. As is common, the Torah gives us a general rule by detailing a number of specific cases. If a man makes a self-imposed oath, it will always stand. However, if a woman makes a self-imposed oath, that oath can be nullified if her father or husband deems it unfit, and the woman is not at fault for having made the oath in the first place.
When analyzing Torah, our Rabbis taught us that every word in our Torah was intentional. Therefore, someone felt that these rules had to be written down. Was their purpose to protect women, or to prevent them from “overstepping their boundaries?”
In either case, this sounds ridiculous today. If a woman in the United States takes it upon herself to pursue higher education, few men if any would take away her agency in doing so. In March, the Pew Research Center released a study which showed that of the graduating high school students in 2012, 71% of women went into higher education while the same could be said for only 61% of the men. In May of 2013, the Pew Research Center put out a study showing that in 40% of households with children under 18, women were either the sole source or primary source of income. This is much higher than the 11% of households that were in a similar situation in 1960. It is evident that the more our women are getting educated, the more they’re able to contribute to our society.
While progress has been made, there is more work to be done. In September of 2000, world leaders came to the United Nations to commit to a global partnership by adopting the “United Nations Millennium Declaration.” In this declaration were eight goals to be achieved by 2015 that were afterwards known as Millennium Development Goals. One of them reads: “Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015.” As of 2013, the UN has declared that, “the world has achieved equality in primary education between girls and boys, but only 2 out of 130 countries have achieved that target at all levels of education.” If we are to follow the UN’s deadline, we now have less than six months to achieve this goal.
There are still countries where men intervene in women’s lives to prevent them from receiving an education. Most notably in recent days, Boko Haram felt threatened enough by the prospect of women being educated that they kidnapped over 200 Nigerian girls from schools in the middle of April. In a report titled “Toward and Afghan democracy,” Anna Larson stated how in 2009, there were reports of toxic gas being dispersed in girls’ school playgrounds and of acid being thrown at schoolgirls by extremist groups against women’s education.
There is a tendency in American media to focus on predominantly Muslim countries as perpetuating this kind of inequality, but I believe that is a narrow view on the issue. According to India’s 2011 census, 65% of women were literate. The CIA factbook estimated that in 2005, only 38.7% of women in Bhutan were literate, compared to 65% of men, and in 2009 the factbook estimated that in Bolivia 86.8% of women were literate, compared to 95.8% of men. This is clearly a global issue.
We can do our part to help. For millennia, Jews have been and continue to be seen as people who place a high priority on education. In Pirkei Avot 5:21, we see that the Rabbis thought a person should start their Jewish studies at age five, and Rabbi Akiva is praised during our Yom Kippur services for having continued to teach Torah in the face of Roman adversary. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, of the 855 Nobel Laureates between 1901 and 2013, at least 22% of them (193) were Jewish (although it is important to note that not a single woman is listed). Our vibrant religious school and adult education programs at TEE are a testament to the value we place on lifelong learning. By continuing to instill in our children the power of education, we can bring about the change needed to give everyone an opportunity to make a difference.
For more information, check out the following resources:
- Millennium Development Goals
- The World Factbook
- Half The Sky, by Kristof, Nicholas D. and WuDunn, Sheryl. Published in 2009, the married couple focuses on the oppression that women across the world have been experiencing for generations. It has since sparked a movement, including a DVD which can be found on their website.
לא עליך המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין לבטל ממנה
lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ven chorin libatel mimena
“It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it.”
Rabbi Tarfon, Avot 2:16
 Description taken from website.
Cantor Richard Lawrence