Sunday, June 19, 2016

What's a Woman Worth?

I know...I'm a delinquent blogger. I actually can't even think of a good excuse, other than, "life." But I have been thinking about writing and have had a post brewing in my head for a few here it is.

Three weeks ago we read parasha Bechukotai, the last parasha in the book of Vayikra. Towards the end of the parasha the Torah speaks about "valuations," that is, how much monetary value gets assigned to a human life should one want to contribute the value of oneself to the Temple. The chapter opens with these verses:

וידבר יהוה אל–משה לאמר: דבר אל–בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם איש כי יפלא נדר בערכך נפשת ליהיה

Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: "Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: If a man articulates a vow to Hashem regarding a valuation of living beings... (Vayikra 27:1-2)

The Torah then goes on to list how much a person is worth, as follows (in translation):

...the valuation of a male shall be: for someone twenty years to sixty years of age, the valuation shall be fifty silver shekels, of the sacred shekel. If she is female, the valuation shall be thirty shekels. And if from five to twenty years of age, the valuation of a male shall be twenty shekels and of a female ten shekels. And if from one month to five years of age, the valuation of a male shall be five silver shekels; and for a female, the valuation shall be three silver shekels. And if from sixty years and up, if for a male, the valuation shall be fifteen shekels; and for a female, ten shekels. (Vayikra 27: 3-7)

Okay, so I might be the Queen of the Obvious Question, but here it is: Why is a woman always worth less than a man?

The week of that parasha, I heard a beautiful dvar Torah given by Torah scholar and writer Tamar Biala, in which she referenced a contemporary midrash written by Rivka Lubitch. In the midrash, Rivka Lubitch focuses on one word in particular:


which, she notes, doesn't actually translate as, "the valuation," but as, "your valuation." What does this mean? It means that it is not G-d who declared that a woman is worth less than a man; rather, it is humans who decided this. In the time that the Torah was given, the general consensus--among both men and women--was that males were worth more than females. Hashem understood this, and so the valuations were written to reflect it.

In other words, the problem is not that women are Divinely decreed to be of a lesser value than men. The problem is that women themselves feel that they are of a lesser value.

Now, I'd like to think that feminism has a strong enough foothold today that most of us would agree that a woman and a man should have equal value. But I know that in many cultures this is not the case, and even in my own culture, women receive messages--both overt and covert--that they are worth less than their male counterparts. These messages are troubling on many levels but they do the most damage when the women themselves buy into them. And we have bought into them. Nearly every woman and girl I've talked to who has a history of an eating disorder has expressed that at the heart of her struggles was the core belief, "I am not worthy."

I am not worthy of taking up space.
I am not worthy of help.
I am not worthy of food.
I am not worthy of love.

How much depression, shame, guilt, and self-hate could be avoided if we had a different view of our own worth?

This idea came up again for me this past week as we read parasha Nasso, specifically, the section about the Sotah or "Wayward Wife." In brief: if a husband suspected his wife of adultery but had no proof of either guilt or innocence, he should bring her before the Kohen. The Kohen would remove the woman's head covering (to shame her) and make her take an oath that if she had not committed adultery, there would be no curse, but if she had strayed, she would die. Then the Kohen would write out the oath on a scroll, dissolve it in water, and force the woman to drink it. If she was innocent, nothing would happen to her, but if she was guilty, she would die an unpleasant death.

I would say that's more than a little troubling and I could go on about it at length, but that's not for here.

Anyway, as I read those verses this past Shabbat and thought about the Sotah in conjunction with the issue of valuations, I began to wonder, "What would have happened if the women of that time had stood up and collectively said, 'ABSOLUTELY NOT!'?" What if they had said no to such a degrading and humiliating ritual? What if they had known that they deserved to be treated with more dignity, just as their husbands were? Now obviously, the women of that time would not have responded this way and it's unfair to project modern sensibilities onto ancient times, and all that. But to me, that is the real tragedy of the Sotah--that both the men and the women believed that was a reasonable way for women to be treated. There was no collective uprising of women who said, "I am too valuable to be subjected to this. I deserve better."

I think the lesson here is twofold:

1) G-d really does value all humans equally--it's just the humans themselves who have a different idea.

2) We cannot expect others to consider us worthy if we do not consider ourselves worthy.

And we are worthy. Of food, of love, of respect, of support, of happiness. G-d already knows this. He's just waiting for us to catch on.