November 15, 2019

Silence is consent: Parashat Matot (Numbers 30:2-32:42)

I recently received an e-mail with the subject line “The Arab Mentality.” It described a Palestinian woman who had been badly burned and successfully treated in Israel, only to be arrested later for attempting to infiltrate Israel’s borders as a suicide bomber. The sender included the names of all those who had received the posting. My name was in the middle of the list.

As I often do when I receive e-mails like this, I consulted with the Anti-Defamation League to see if the story was true, and indeed it was. The author of the article was a medical doctor in Israel. What the article didn’t mention is that he is also a member of Moledet, a right-wing Israeli political party with an agenda. The labeling of this posting “The Arab Mentality” is like an anti-Semite titling a posting about Bernie Madoff “The Jewish Mentality.”

I get a lot of e-mails like this — e-mails describing situations, sometimes true and often not true, that malign Arabs and Muslims as a group. I’m never sure how to respond. The easiest thing to do is to simply delete them. But this was sent by a congregant, a thoughtful person, engaged and passionate about Israel, a person I admire. And if I just deleted the message, what was I saying by my silence? Other congregants were on the same list; they knew I had seen it, too.

This week’s Torah portion is part of why I felt I had to respond. Matot begins with a description about the importance of vows. The primary focus is the vows women make. As the National Jewish Book Award-winning “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” suggests, “The chief concern seems to be to regulate the impact that a woman’s vow might have upon the household … her father or her husband.” Not surprising in a patriarchal culture, her father or husband can veto her vows.

What is surprising is that the veto has to happen on the day the vow was heard.

The Shulchan Aruch makes it very clear: “They can only cancel the vow within the day they heard it. That is, if they heard the vow at the beginning of the evening, they may cancel it all night and the entire following day. If they heard [the vow] close to the time that the stars appear, they can cancel it only until the stars appear. Beyond that time they cannot cancel it. …”

As Rabbi Brad Artson points out in his article “No Neutrality: Silence Is Assent,” this is strange, because if these fathers and husbands have the power to veto the woman’s vow, why does it have to be immediate? The answer given by the Talmud is that “silence is like assent.” Once you know what the promise is, if you don’t speak up, it is as though you are also responsible for it. Once you know what is going on, if you don’t speak up, you are also responsible. Someone forwards a derogatory e-mail that tarnishes all Arabs and I delete it? “Silence is consent.”

The Maharal of Prague made this very clear when he wrote that individual piety is not enough; no matter how pious we are, we will be held accountable for the sin of not protesting against something that is wrong. His position has echoes in the Talmud: “Whoever has the ability to prevent his household from sin and does not is accountable for the sins of his household; if he could do so with his fellow citizens and does not, he is accountable for his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is accountable for the whole world” (Talmud Shabbat 54b).

So maybe I can’t prevent the whole world from sin, or my community or even my family. But still I am accountable if I do nothing.

So I responded: “I am not sure that sharing e-mails like this is necessarily helpful in the ongoing discussion of what is best for Israel. You may be interested to know that the author is not an apolitical medical doctor. He is a former member of Moledet and now in the National Union — a right-wing party in the Knesset. While the story appears to be true, he wants people to know the story in order to support a particular political position. This is a not a story about the ‘Arab mentality’ in general. It is rather the story of a particular Arab woman.”

This week’s Torah portion asks us to be careful about what we say, the vows and promises we make. And it also demands of us to be careful about what we don’t say, because “silence is consent.”