“The Daughters Of Tzelafchad: Legitimate Feminist Claims”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, we learn of the precedent-shattering request of the daughters of Tzelafchad.

The Torah, in Numbers 27, records that the five daughters of Tzelafchad came before Moses, Elazar the Priest, the Princes of the Israelite tribes, and the entire congregation at the door of the Tabernacle. The women claimed that their father had died in the wilderness and had left no sons (Numbers 27:4). T’nu la’nu achuzah b’toch achei avinu,” Give us a possession among our father’s brothers, they asked.

The Torah relates that since Moses did not know the immediate answer, he brought the question before G-d. G-d told Moses (Numbers 27:7) that the claim of the daughters of Tzelafchad was justified and instructed Moses to transfer the inheritance of their father to them. In further clarification, G-d states that if a man dies and leaves no sons, his property shall first transfer to his daughters, and only afterwards, if there are no female heirs, to other close relatives.

This scriptural portion is indeed remarkable. After all, why didn’t the Torah just include this law, that the property of a man who leaves no male heirs transfers to his daughters, as part of the regular legal portions that appear throughout the Torah? Why was it necessary for the daughters to approach Moses, and why was Moses incapable of responding, making it necessary for him to get the answer directly from G-d?

We live in an age where many disenfranchised, or so-called disenfranchised, people make claims about historic injustices. They demand that the discriminatory practices cease and often request compensation for the previous injustices. While surely many of these claims are legitimate, the practice of discriminatory claims has become so widespread and in certain instances has gotten so out of hand, that it’s been quipped, only half in jest, that soon left-handed people will start class-action suits against public accommodations which have staircase rails only on the right.

Distinguishing between a legitimate claim and a non-legitimate claim has become an art. And with the factor of “political correctness” often being added into the mix, woe unto the person that does not show proper respect to those claims — legitimate or not!

It is fascinating that the Torah has included the episode of the daughters of Tzelafchad in a featured parasha, rather than having us learn it from some textual exegesis, as are many other important laws. It underscores that Judaism is really light years ahead of other civilizations in establishing fair and equitable parameters for Jewish women. But, it’s not so surprising after all, since already in Genesis (2:27) the Torah declares that both husband and wife should become one flesh, and just as one would not hurt or mistreat oneself, so one may not hurt or mistreat one’s spouse.

The Torah was the first universal document to insist that a man provide for and adequately support his wife, as we learn from Exodus 21:10, “Sh’era, k’sutah, v’onatah lo yig’rah,” Men must provide their wives with food, clothing and sexual pleasure.

Furthermore, the entire narrative of the book of Exodus indicates that, were it not for the women, the Jewish people would never have been redeemed from Egypt — in each case citing the errant behavior of the men and the faithful behavior of the women. The Torah (Deut. 24:1) is also the first document in human history to provide for divorce for unsuccessful marriages. Similarly, the Torah (Deut. 21:15) insists that if a man has multiple wives, he may not favor one’s children over the other’s. In fact, the Torah clearly looks down on multiple wives; after all, each case of polygamy cited in the Bible is riddled with pain and unhappiness. The Bible (Samuel I 1:6) intentionally calls the second wife a “tzara” — literally a “pain” to the first wife and the origin of the venerable Yiddish word “tsuris” — travail! The Talmud (Sanhed.76b) states movingly that one must love one’s wife as much as oneself and honor her more than himself. It is indeed fascinating to note that the male-dominated Halakhic hierarchy of Jewish law has worked assiduously over the millennia to expand the rights and privileges of women, particularly remarkable since this was done at the time when other civilizations were limiting the rights of women. It was not so long ago that women in some countries of the Orient were expected to jump into the grave and be buried alive after their husbands died. Jewish tradition teaches that an older women in the house is a treasure and a blessing (Talmud, Arkhin 19a).

Now back to the earlier question. Why indeed was the law of inheritance of daughters not included in the general legal sections of the Bible? Why was it necessary to ask G-d to render a decision? Perhaps because Halakha, Jewish law, is an evolving law. Clearly the social status and positions of both men and women change as society evolves. Could it be that the Al-mighty was signaling us that as the role of women changes in secular society, the role of women needs to be reevaluated in the religious society. But, of course, there is a caveat — if the laws of secular society controvert any of the values and laws of the Torah, they must not be followed. To the contrary, they must be rejected. However, when the laws and customs of society do not clash with Jewish law, then by all means Jews must take a leading stand in the efforts to expand women’s rights and privileges.

I think it is fair to say in retrospect, especially in light of some of the excesses we have seen in the contemporary feminist movement in America, that it is quite obvious that women, even passionately feminist women, do not really seek to be men. To the contrary, we have learned that women for the most part truly want to be women, but resent being disenfranchised from rights and privileges that should legitimately be theirs. Women are entitled to equal pay for equal work. Women are entitled to have the opportunity to properly nurture their children, to be granted maternity and paternity leave, and, of course, women are entitled to equal education.

The ancient laws that we learn from the episode of the daughters of Tzelafchad were a revolutionary breakthrough in society and family. They exist to help us understand the nature of Torah and the nature of the Torah’s perspective on women. The fact that Moses had to seek G-d’s opinion clearly indicates that the Al-mighty wanted this area of Jewish life to evolve. The Al-mighty wants more than anything else for us to explore His Torah, find new insights, and discover new patterns. It is G-d’s fervent wish that through this continuing search, all of G-d’s creatures will be able to develop in a healthful and constructive manner for the betterment of all of humankind.

May you be blessed.