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Women's Worthiness

05/07/2021 08:39:03 PM


Shabbat Shalom! Happy almost-Mother’s Day, and shout out to our Sisterhood for such a beautiful Friday night service. This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Behar-Behukotai, in which we read about the last of the priestly laws and close the Book of Leviticus. Toward the end of the parasha, we read the verses:

“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When anyone explicitly vows to the LORD the equivalent for a human being, the following scale shall apply: If it is a male from twenty to sixty years of age, the equivalent is fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary weight; if it is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels. If the age is from five years to twenty years, the equivalent is twenty shekels for a male and ten shekels for a female. If the age is from one month to five years, the equivalent for a male is five shekels of silver, and the equivalent for a female is three shekels of silver. If the age is sixty years or over, the equivalent is fifteen shekels in the case of a male and ten shekels for a female.”

When I first read this, I was torn between my modern feminist sensibilities feeling anger toward the inequality of the values between various human beings, particularly the intrinsic lower worth of women at every age, and my well-reasoned rabbinic education understand the particular value of “warriors,” men who put forth a specific type of productivity and protection for the camp, and so on. Then I realized the differences between the values of men and women are not consistent. Anyone who knows me in pretty much any capacity knows that numbers are not my strong suit, but I know enough math to know that ten shekels is half of twenty (the values between male and female children) whereas none of the other age brackets marked exactly half a value.

          Now, before I go on to explain the differences between ages and sexes in these value calculation, first I must just clarify what the Torah is talking about here and that the Torah definitely doesn’t see people in terms of these hard and fast numbers as their inherent worth. Ibn Ezra said of these types of vows, “Its meaning is, he will take a vow saying: If God will do the following for me then I will redeem my life in accordance with its value, or the value of my son’s life, or the value of the life of a beast.” By “value” the Torah and the rabbis mean what the commercial worth of a body of certain age and genders may be, if for example such a body were available on the slave market (even though the vows in question here would only be made by a free person). While we certainly don’t assess people in quite so outright a way as the ancient peoples who were accustomed to valuing slaves, it would be dishonest of us to claim that modern capitalism doesn’t value ages and genders differently and that this sort of cost analysis of humans doesn’t still occur in some ways in our world.

          The Talmud does not seem to address directly that different ages and genders are worth distinct monetary values, perhaps because that still seems very obvious to them. But they do address the question I posed above: why do the differences in value between men and women or boys and girls vary so much in each age group? Tractate Arakhin poses the specific question:

And what is different with regard to a female, that when she ages past sixty years she stands at a valuation of ten shekels, one-third of her previous valuation of thirty shekels, and what is different with regard to a male, that when he ages past sixty, at which point he has a valuation of fifteen shekels, he does not stand at even one-third of his previous valuation of fifty shekels? Ḥizkiya said that people say a popular saying: If there is an elderly man in the home, there is a burden [paḥa] in the home, as he does not help with anything; if there is an elderly woman in the home, there is a treasure in the home, as she assists with various domestic labors.

The explanation reminded me a bit of the Proverbs poem, “A Woman of Valor,” about the ideal wife and mother. Although domestic labor may not be financially rewarded as highly as work outside the home, it is obviously essential. And while people who work outside the home may someday retire, the cooking and cleaning must be done forever (or at least until your children put you in a home). Older women certainly deserve to be uplifted in any generation, but especially in the days gone by when their work at home extended hours and years beyond the work of the breadwinners.

          Although the division of labor, both domestic and employed, is fairer and more equitable on average these days, we still see too often work associated with women (teaching, nursing, cleaning, eldercare, childcare, etc.) being undervalued. While we celebrate moms this weekend – and for sure their labor is due the utmost celebration! – we must also uplift all women regardless of their baby-making status and create better equity between genders (and to a certain extent, between ages, too!) so that the next generation will truly see no difference in value between men and women, boys and girls.

          May we celebrate strong women and may we recognize them all around us. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.





Sun, September 26 2021 20 Tishrei 5782