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Words with Friends

07/13/2023 09:26:29 AM


My favorite thing about Judaism is the arguing. Now I don’t mean screaming or insulting or winning or losing. I mean the arguing, when one person says to another, “Here’s a really interesting question!” And the other replies, “Oh yeah that is interesting!” And then someone says, “I think the answer is this”; and another says, “It is the opposite.” And off we go.

I love it because in this process we have a purpose and we have companions. We are trying to learn and to understand and we’re not doing it alone. There is a sense of belonging in thinking out loud with friends. And trying to figure things out together is one of the best ways I’ve ever felt that sense of being seen, supported, and understood.

Our parsha this week lays out some challenges for a modern woman. A woman’s vows can be absolved by her father or by her husband; a man’s vows have no such codicil. The Midianite women seduced Israelites into sin. Only a male child inherits his ancestral property. But also, a husband has 24 hours to annul a vow. Of all the Midianites, only the young girls are allowed to survive. And the daughters of Tzelophchad petition successfully to inherit their father’s property.

What am I to learn here? I don’t relate these laws in my own life. If I make a vow, I can’t imagine a man in my life annulling it. Tzelophchad’s daughters’ win is also confusing. The women are allowed to inherit their father’s property, but then they must also marry within their tribe lest another tribe get that property (because tribal identity is patrilineal). In the Torah it all works out for the daughters. We close out the book of Numbers with the information that they married their cousins. But does that mean if a daughter marries outside her tribe while her father is alive, if he dies without sons she cannot inherit?

I have a Whatsapp chat of some of my closest female friends from rabbinical school we put together when we lived in Jerusalem. I texted the chat this question. Debate ensued! Talmud, Torah, precedent, logic — the chat lit up with citations and argument.

It was one’s friend very first day at her pulpit. In any new role, especially such an overwhelming one as a congregational rabbi, you can feel lost and a bit out of touch with your own abilities and needs. Our debate, she wrote, restored to her a sense of “groundedness and normalcy” on this first day.

I imagine in some way the familiarity of the practice of arguing about Torah, something we did often in school, was reassuring. But I also believe that arguing together is empowering. It gives us a sense of being seen and appreciated. And the willingness and safety to be frequently or spectacularly wrong, combined with the faith that you can figure things out — that you can make meaning together even in disagreement, is the greatest generator of the feeling of belonging that I have ever known.

I don’t know how the laws of Mattot-Masei unfold in the modern court of egalitarian opinion. But there’s a group chat of women rabbis out there having a ball arguing about it together. We know that studying and arguing about Torah is a place where we all belong.

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784