“The Battle for Women’s Rights”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, the five daughters of Zelophehad plead for the right to inherit their father’s land-property in the land of Israel.

Apparently, as a sign of great esteem, the Torah identifies each of the women by name: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. The five sisters stand in front of the Tent of Meeting, before Moses, Elazar the priest and the leaders of the entire assembly, to plead their case. In Numbers 27:3-4, they declare: אָבִינוּ מֵת בַּמִּדְבָּר וְהוּא לֹא הָיָה בְּתוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַנּוֹעָדִים עַל השם בַּעֲדַת קֹרַח, כִּי בְחֶטְאוֹ מֵת וּבָנִים לֹא הָיוּ לו. לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם אָבִינוּ מִתּוֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ כִּי אֵין לוֹ בֵּן, תְּנָה לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ, Our father died in the wilderness, but he was not among those that gathered against G-d in the assembly of Korach, but he died of his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be omitted from among his family because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.

The commentators note that when the daughters of Zelophehad are identified, their lineage is traced all the way back to Joseph, to underscore the great love for the land of Israel that both Joseph and the daughters of Zelophehad shared. Before he died (Genesis 50:25), Joseph made his descendants promise to bring his bones back to the land of Israel. Now his descendants, the daughters of Zelophehad, also plead for their right to inherit their father’s property in the land of Israel.

As a result of their great love of the land of Israel, the daughters merit that the laws of women’s inheritance are introduced in the Torah. Although the Torah would have included these laws in any case, because of the daughters’ great love for the land of Israel, it was recorded in their names. As the ArtScroll commentary notes: “Few honors can be comparable to that of being the vehicle for the revelation of G-d’s words.”

In Numbers 27:7, G-d declares to Moses that the daughters of Zelophehad speak properly, and that they are entitled to inherit the land of their father. The Torah then proceeds to record the rules of inheritance, stating that if a man dies and has no sons, the inheritance shall pass to his daughter or daughters.

Rabbi Yaakov Philber, in his weekly email (Pinchas 2012), uses this opportunity to develop and analyze the Torah’s attitude toward women.

Rabbi Philber notes that the general perception is that Jewish sources do not regard women with great respect or esteem. Women are not seen as dynamic movers and shakers, but rather as passive and retiring. Especially those who have very little familiarity with the original sources are under the false impression that women are regarded as subservient and submissive to men, eager to fulfill their husbands’ wills. This subservience is perhaps reflected in the early Biblical statement attributed to G-d (Genesis 2:18), אֶעֱשֶׂה לּוֹ עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ, I will make a helpmate for him, as if to imply that women are perpetually destined to be man’s “helper.” Similarly, when the angels come to visit Abraham and ask (Genesis 18:9), “Where is Sarah, your wife?” Abraham says, “Behold, she is in the tent,” as if the wife’s place is expected to be in the kitchen. Added to this is the fact that there are many rabbinic statements that appear to be condescending to women, or ascribe to women a secondary, subservient role. So, for instance, the Yalkut Shimoni Shoftim 42, declares that the truly appropriate wife is one who fulfills her husband’s will.

However, claims Rabbi Philber, even a cursory examination of the actual Torah sources portrays an entirely different picture of women, who are hardly submissive. In fact, the women of the Torah always stand firmly to defend their views and opinions. They criticize their spouses and often assume positions that are boldly opposite their husband’s opinion. Although the first example is not at all flattering, Eve convinces her husband Adam to sin against G-d, and to eat the forbidden fruit.

After the first example of Eve, however, most of the scriptural examples of women who assume the initiative are very positive, most often bringing blessing in their wake.

Although Sarah was in the tent preparing food when the angels arrived, she was from the very beginning of their relationship, an equal partner with Abraham, making souls in Charan, and converting the women to monotheism (Genesis 12:5). When Sarah takes issue with Abraham regarding the education of their son, Isaac, G-d agrees with Sarah, telling Abraham (Genesis 21:12) that everything that Sarah tells you to do, listen to her voice! From here the rabbis derive (Rashi, Genesis 21:12) that Sarah’s power of prophecy was greater than Abraham’s.

Rebecca also disagrees with her husband, Isaac, and determines to transfer Isaac’s blessing from Esau to Jacob (Genesis 27).

The matriarchs, Rachel and Leah, also seem to take a very independent path from their husband, Jacob, manipulating and directing his actions, resulting in a complete change of the complexion of the patriarchal family (Genesis 30:3 and 16).

Tamar (Judah’s daughter-in-law) is a paradigm of an extremely independent woman, who refuses to accept the despairing attitude of Judah, after the death of his two sons (Genesis 38). Her bold actions lead to the birth of her son, Peretz, son of Judah, progenitor of King David and of the Messiah. Added to this list of dynamic women, of course, is Miriam, who, (according to the Midrash) berates her father for lacking faith in redemption, and for separating from his wife, Yocheved. According to the Midrash, it is in Miriam’s merit that Moses is born.

But the picture of dynamic women is not just relegated to a few specific individual women, but rather all the women of the generation of the Exodus from Egypt, who rise to the occasion. It is they who refuse to sin with the Golden Calf, refuse to give their jewelry to the men, and refuse to join in the sin of the spies. To the contrary, the women in Egypt (again according to the Midrash) in the face of Pharaoh’s murderous decrees, seduce their husbands in order to bear Jewish children, and are fully ready and prepared to rejoice at the time of the Exodus, with drums and musical instruments, because of their abiding faith in redemption.

It is no wonder that our sages say (Talmud Sotah 11b) that only in the merit of the righteous women were our ancestors redeemed from Egypt. Had it been up to the men, redemption may never have arrived.

The daughters of Zelophehad are exemplary in many ways. When these noble women, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, hear that the land is going to be divided among the tribes, and that women might be excluded, they were determined to do something about it. When they realized that they would not receive a fair hearing from the men, they decide to appeal to G-d directly. According to the Midrash (Sifrei Bamidbar 27:1), they say, “The compassion of the Al-mighty is not like the compassion of flesh and blood. Human compassion favors men over women. But He who created the world is not so. Rather His compassion is both on men and on women, as it says (Psalms 145:9), ‘His compassion is upon all His creatures.’”

That is why The Malbim writes that, confident that G-d would have compassion on them, the daughters of Zelophehad stood before Moses, and each one of them presented their own argument. The first one said, “Our father died in the wilderness.” The second said, “And he was not among the assembly that gathered against G-d (Korach).” The third one said, “Why should our father’s name be omitted?” The fourth one said, “Simply because he had no son.” The fifth one said, “Give us a possession.”

Moses was persuaded to bring their plea before G-d, and G-d readily accepted their argument, saying, Numbers 27:7, כֵּן בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד דֹּבְרֹת , The daughters of Zelophehad speak properly. G-d Himself substantiated their arguments.

The rest is history. Not only were the rules of women’s inheritance inscribed forever, but also esteem for women was to be forever elevated.

May you be blessed.