Viewing this text through 21st century eyes, it is yet another example of how women had little or no control over their own fate. The only way a woman's vow could be binding without her father or husband's approval would be if she kept it a secret or if she were a widow or divorcée. In other words, only through divorce, death or deceit could a woman make a binding vow of her own accord.
As if this were not enough, the following passage does even more violence, literally speaking, to women. For in this passage, Moses berates the leaders of the tribes that, during their slaughter of the Midianites in their most recent battle they spared the Midianite women. This was particularly vexing to Moses because he believed it was the women who had "induced the Israelites to trespass against God" through illicit sexual conduct, thereby prompting Moses to attack. Therefore, Moses commanded the captains to murder any Midianite woman who was not a virgin, and to let the virgins survive and be counted as part of the spoils of war. In other words, as property.
I find these texts to be distasteful and misogynistic. However, as is often the case, that which we find to most troubling is often where we can find new teachings if we pay close attention. But how does one derive meaning from such problematic passages?
In first reading the text, it seems clear to me that in the biblical view, women could not be trusted. If they could, then there would be no need to give men the power to annul their vows. In addition, women are viewed as dangerous, especially if they are sexually active (outside of marriage), as made evident by Moses' anger and his command to kill all of the Midianite women who were not virgins.
In pondering these texts, it appears that the source of the mistrust and impetus for the violence commanded towards the women may well be the fear and mistrust that the men have of themselves. For no matter how "seductive" the Midianite women might have been, the men would not have "trespassed" with them if they did not have the same sexual desires and if they were able to control them. But, as is often the case throughout history, and until today, it is much easier to simply blame it on women.
However, this interpretation does not address the passage concerning vows and women. In order to come to terms with this passage I feel the need to more drastically re-read in a more allegorical, and psychological, manner.
We know that each human being has male and female characteristics within. For each of us there is part within that feels more authentic. In a manner of speaking, there is a part within us that feels more like "I" and a part which feels more like "other" within our own individual psyches. The parts within that seem most like other are often the parts that we have kept most hidden throughout our lives. However, these parts are no more or less a part of who we are than those parts with which we are more comfortable. Yet, they are the parts try to ignore, repress, destroy or control. In a way, they are the parts within us that we don't trust.
In the Torah text, a husband or father has ultimate control over the vows of his wife or daughter. Both are seen as an extension of him, and both are seen as other and not to be trusted. This is where the two passages dealing with women in the parashah connect. For just as the women of Midian are viewed as having the ability to control the Israelite men and bring about their moral downfall, so too a wife or daughter who has made the wrong kind of vow (and we can only imagine what those vows might have been) could bring about the downfall of her father or husband.
Following my analogy to a conclusion, it is the pieces of ourselves that we view as “other” of which we are most afraid and which we try to control or destroy. But it is because we remain ignorant or living in fear of these pieces that they have the potential to cause us the most suffering and harm. However, the solution is not to try to control or destroy them - whether within us or within others who bring up these feelings within us. Rather, the solution is to become more aware of them, acknowledge them, and accept them as part of who we are. These unknown "other" parts of us are not bad or evil. They are not "other." They are simply the parts of ourselves with which we still struggle.
I can only imagine how differently the scenario in this week's parashah might have ended, or how differently recent incidents of racial strife and all kinds of incidents rooted in fear and prejudice may have turned out if people changed their perspective. All we need to do is look at what we fear or don't understand and embrace it as something which is part of us all, rather than trying to destroy or control it because it is something that belongs to the “other.” How different all of our lives, and our world, might be if we could practice this on a more regular basis ourselves.