Valuing women in Torah, across the globe

BY RABBI JUSTIN S. KERBER

In ancient times, just as today, maintaining the sanctuary was costly. Torah portion B’har-B’chukotai sets forth a detailed scheme for people to voluntarily pledge the value of animals, agricultural products, real estate, even the value of human beings for its upkeep.

Leviticus 27:2-3 say, “if anyone explicitly vows to the Lord the equivalent value for a human being, the following scale shall apply…” The scale’s valuation is determined by age and by gender, with males consistently being more highly valued than females. Does the Torah really mean that a male is worth more than a female?

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Temple Emanuel’s Book Club recently discussed “Half the Sky,” by the husband-wife team Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn of The New York Times. Kristof and WuDunn believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.

In the West, when we think of gender discrimination we typically think of inappropriate conduct in the workplace or unequal funding for girls’ and women’s sports. But in the developing world the stakes are higher. Women and girls are valued less than men and boys across wide portions of the globe today, which manifests itself in such practices as female genital cutting, so-called “honor killings” and human trafficking, including kidnapping women and girls for forced prostitution. A recent documentary, “Call & Response” estimates that 2.2 million children are sold annually into sexual slavery.

First, our verses do not mean that women are less valuable than men; they relate specifically to the pledges for upkeep of the sanctuary. Genesis 1:27 makes it clear: “God created human beings in the divine image…male and female.”

Judaism’s commitment to women’s dignity is clear, from the prophets’ concern for the widow to the innovation of the marriage contract, or Ketubah in ancient Babylonia – one of the earliest examples of legal protection for a woman’s interests in marriage. Second, the issue touches Israel directly.

Each year the U.S. Department of State publishes the Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report. The 2009 TIP Report specifically mentions Israel: “The Government of Israel does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. Israel continued law enforcement actions against sex trafficking and provided victims of sex trafficking with shelter and protection assistance…Extending protection services to all victims of trafficking identified in Israel, and improving identification of victims of labor trafficking and internal trafficking would enhance Israel’s anti-trafficking response.”

The annual publication of the TIP Report makes clear that the United States is concerned about human trafficking. As American Jews, we should be aware of the report and troubled that Israel is mentioned in it.

After all, we are commanded to remember that we ourselves were slaves in Egypt.

While it is good that Israel is making significant efforts to comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, we should encourage those efforts until full compliance is achieved, and sexual slavery eliminated from Israel altogether.

Rabbi Justin Kerber serves Temple Emanuel and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.