Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, July 30, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland
It is quite appropriate, you might call it bashert, that Hillary Clinton was nominated this week to become the Democratic party’s candidate for President. As the first woman nominated by one of the two main political parties, she broke figuratively, and literally if you watched the graphic on Tuesday evening, the ultimate glass ceiling in America. It is bashert because this morning’s Torah portion has more women designated by name than any other. There are nine of them: Yocheved, Moshe and Aaron’s mother, Miriam their sister, Serach a daughter of Asher, the five daughters of a man Tzelophahad, whom we will get to in a moment and one Gentile, Cozbi the daughter the daughter of Tzur. Yocheved, Miriam and Serah are mentioned cursorily in the census of leadership.
The others play significant roles in the parasha for different reasons. Cozbi bat Tzur was the Midianite princess whom Pinhas kills with her Israelite lover after she and the Midianite women tempt the Israelite men into idolatry and sexual license. For Zimri, the Israelite chieftain, and others these seductions released impulsive desires that were repressed after decades of wandering in the desert. Her actions lead to plague and destruction.
Now compare her to the five “daughters of Tzelofhad,”: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah. Why in a Torah devoid of most women’s stories do these five sisters get mentioned by name?
Moshe is getting ready to divvy up the Land of Israel as an eternal inheritance, as the people reach the end of their wanderings in the desert and prepare to enter this new stage of their national existence. But in the system being established by Moshe, land will be given only to men and passed on through men. Having no brothers, the sisters realize that there is no one to inherit what would have been the portion allotted to their father; their immediate family will not share in the Land. And so they come forward to petition Moshe for a different outcome.
“The daughters of Tzelofhad…came forward …They stood before Moshe, Elazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of Korah’s faction which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding, an inheritance, among our father’s kinsmen!” (Num. 27:1-4)
Moshe takes their plea to God – Who responds:
“The daughters of Tzelofhad speak correctly; you will surely give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen, transfer their father’s share to them.” (27:6)
God goes on to impart to Moshe a more broad principle that in any case in which a man dies without living male descendants, his daughters then become his heirs.
The daughters of Tzelofhad accomplish something quite significant; a change in the law going forward that gives women a degree of rights that they did not have before. It is still not an equal system –it is true that they inherit only when there are no sons. But in a society in which women live in the background, the daughters of Tzelofhad are bold in taking action and asking for what they want, and they most certainly make history in a positive way.
The system Moshe is trying to establish for the Israelites is a society of God’s people in the Land. One could argue (and certain rabbinic midrashim did) that throughout the Torah, there are examples in which women have better values than the men to whom the land is supposed to go: It was the men who were ready to give up under Egyptian oppression, it was the men who offered the gold to make the Golden calf, it was 10 male spies who discouraged the nation from entering the Land, and now the daughters of Tzelophahad were protesting the Land’s apportionment so that their ancestral family not lose its share. And as Rabbi Gayle Labovitz, professor of Talmud at American Jewish University points out, they challenge the system from within the system. Unlike Korah and others who rebel against Moshe and God’s program, they are motivated by a commitment to the system and its ideals. In so doing the change they advocate for makes a change for the better.
A rabbinic midrash expands on the commitment the sisters have to God’s system: When the daughters of Tzelofhad heard that the Land was being divided among tribes, to males, and not to females, they gathered each with the other to consult. They said: “God’s mercy is not like the mercy of human beings. For human beings have more compassion for males than for females. But the Holy and Blessed One is not like that; God’s compassion extends to both males and females. God’s compassion extends to all, as it is written: ‘The Lord is good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works.’ (Psalm 145:9)” (Sifre Bamidbar 133)
Professor Labovitz notes that in the midrash the rabbis display recognition of the unfairness in the treatment between men and women in Judaism and Jewish law, and that this unfairness is not in keeping with God’s feelings for God’s creatures, all of whom are equal in Divine eyes. And yet…she adds, “The very rabbis who authored this midrash and placed it into this midrashic collection also authored many other passages that are not so compassionate to women. They made legislation that was and is harmful to women’s material well-being. They did not live up to their own, brief insight into God’s compassion for both genders.
Seeing the problem is not enough. Complaining to yourself or to your family or to a few friends about the problem is not enough. To make history, positive history, means taking responsibility for actively seeking the change that needs to happen. And it means showing the system that its own values are not being fully realized.”
Rabbi Gordon Tucker in a passage in his teshuvah arguing for inclusion of homosexuality, in “Halakhic and Metahalakhic Arguments Concerning Judaism and Homosexuality” describes how positive change came about in the early days of egalitarian communities:
Before there were any legal arguments for the full equalization of women and men in the synagogue and house of study, there were communities that had formed themselves with a vision of such equalization. They were committed to Judaism in a way that included ritual and liturgical traditionalism, but their own narrative, their own understanding of our texts, led them to the conviction that the tradition was wrong in excluding women from any public roles… here were egalitarian communities that were preserving, not dismantling, Jewish tradition. Their commitments were familiar: the texts they venerated were the Jewish sacred texts (though they, of course, had their own interpretations of them), their liturgy was structured traditionally and was recited in Hebrew, they were Zionists, they contributed to Jewish scholarship, they supported the philanthropic institutions of mainstream Jewish society, and so on. Their vision was of a law that was being created by this encounter, this interaction. It was in fact a law “waiting in the wings” that eventually became mainstream. And it did so to our great blessing, and to that of the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Labovitz is grateful for the growth of egalitarian communities in the Conservative movement, now clearly the majority, but wonders, “What does that really mean”?
She references a responsum “Women and Mitzvot,” by Rabbi Pamela Barmash, that the CJLS passed 2 years ago. Rabbi Barmash writes at the very outset of her paper, “Egalitarianism, the equality of women in the observance of mitzvot, is not just about the participation of women: it is about fostering the fulfillment of by all Jews” (emphasis added). Rabbi Labovitz points out that the Jewish legal system differs in an important and fundamental way from that of the United States and most modern, Western countries: One is built on rights, the other on obligation. To be equal in the American system is to have equal rights: To vote, to control one’s own finances, to say what one wants. But the measure of full status as a “citizen” under Jewish law is to have full obligation to the system of commandments, ritual and interpersonal. Rabbi Barmash thus demonstrates at length and with great erudition that women’s tradition exemption from much of public Jewish ritual practice is “… because they had subordinate status. They were exempted from the mitzvot that Jews are obligated to observe in the normal course of the day, week, and year because the essential ritual acts should be performed only by those of the highest social standing, those who were independent, those who were heads of their own households, not subordinate to anyone else. Only males were considered to be fitting candidates to honor God in the most fit way.”
If we believe that women in our communities are of equal worth and ability as men (if they serve as our synagogue presidents and rabbis and school principals – and as lawyers and judges and doctors and professors in the world beyond the Jewish community), then the way that ought to be reflected Jewishly is by equality not just of opportunity, but of actual obligation and participation. And so, the p’sak, the legal conclusion of Rabbi Barmash’s argument is quite straight-forward: “We rule therefore that women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot. We call upon Conservative synagogues, schools, and camps to educate men and women in equal observance of mitzot and to expect and require their equal observance of mitzvot.”
Rabbi Labovitz and Rabbi Barmash are calling out the institutions of our movement, but it is also a call to the individuals in our egalitarian congregations.
It can’t be enough just to declare ourselves egalitarian, just to say that anyone who wants to participate may and leave it at that. Making history, making historic change, demands that we take ownership of the changes we want to see.
We have seen that change in the significant number of women at Sinai who put on tefillin and wear a Tallit – not just when they come up on the bima - and lead davvening and read Torah. That is the sign that egalitarianism has truly begun to take root.
Being an egalitarian community means equal. The enthusiasm of some of the women in our community to take on these mitzvot is terrific. The men in our congregation know they have been obligated over the centuries but many are lax in our contemporary age. Egalitarianism means that men should see the opportunities of participation with the same enthusiasm as women just now learning. Our congregation has made great strides in this direction. Participation was named in our communal conversations as something very special we encourage and share at Sinai. We need to continue to move in that direction, encouraging women to continue to take lead in ritual and to make sure that when they do, the men in the congregation don’t recede and leave it to them, as if all of a sudden minyan or Torah reading and learning is a ‘woman’s task’. We all need to come forward, go to Moshe, and say “Give me my Land; Give me my inheritance!” Let us all insist that we take our rightful role as heirs to our noble heritage.