Towards the beginning of Parashat Pinhas, we read the story of the daughters of Zelophehad. After Moses instructs the people on the division of the Promised Land once they enter it he also informs them that the land will pass from father to son so that it will remain within the tribes. Upon hearing this the five daughters of Zelophehad confront Moses with the fact that their father died in the desert leaving behind only daughters. Given the new laws their land would be lost from their family. They believe that they deserve to inherit the land by stating “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kin!” (Numbers 27:3-4). Moses brings their case before God who declares that their claim is just and that they should be allowed to inherit their father’s share of the land. The law from that time on is that if a man dies without sons the land shall pass to his daughters.
Towards the end of Numbers/Bemidbar the tribe of Menasseh, to which Zelophehad and his daughters belong, complain that if the daughters marry outside the tribe the land will be lost from the tribal inheritance. Therefore the law is amended by Divine decree to include the provision that daughters who inherit must marry within their own tribe. Both decrees concerning daughters and inheritance insure that the land remains not only within the family, but within the tribe. Though at first it might seem that women’s rights and equality are the main concern of the authors (and many have tried to make that point) the reality is that familial and tribal integrity are the overriding principles.
In discussing the daughters of Zelophehad the rabbis portray them (and the other women of their generation) in an almost saintly light. “For forty years in the wilderness, the men tore down fences and the women repaired them (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 21:10). Furthermore, tradition teaches that the women did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf (for which they were rewarded with the monthly holiday of Rosh Hodesh — the New Moon) and when the men lost all hope upon hearing of the negative report of the spies who scouted the land the daughters of Zelophehad came forward to claim their share of it. They had faith that they would indeed conquer the land so that they would be able to have a share of it.
All of these texts extol the virtues of women, but in closer examination they seem more like apologetics than true praise. In reality women had no rights in terms of leadership, inheritance or other important concepts of the time. Though the daughters of Zelophehad seem to strike a victory on behalf of womankind the reality is that they are ONLY allowed to inherit if there are no sons and then they are restricted as to whom they can marry. True, the daughters succeed in their claims, but this does not change the basic inequity of the system under which our Biblical ancestors lived.
That being said, the daughters of Zelophehad can be seen as setting the wheel in motion that eventually would lead to women’s equality within Judaism. Of course, that equality is limited to those outside of the Orthodox and more traditional world, but that encompasses a large number of women. In looking at the statistics, the fact that the student bodies of the non-Orthodox seminaries combined are composed of approximately fifty percent women (at RRC the percentage is over fifty most years) and that more and more women feel comfortable leading ritual and being active members in the ritual and political leadership of their congregations is important. In addition, Reconstructionism, which pioneered women’s rights in contemporary Judaism with the Bat Mitzvah of Judith Kaplan in 1922, has hit another milestone with the appointment of the first woman to head an American rabbinical school: Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D. These are all facts and statistics that no doubt would please the daughters of Zelophehad. And yet, just as within the secular world, the victories are not complete.
In the secular world women have achieved much equality and yet statistics still show that in general women earn less money than men for similar work. There is strong anecdotal evidence (which is in the process of being studied more thoroughly) that women rabbis and other Jewish professionals earn less money than their male counterparts as well. Just as the “feminization” of many professions seems to have a negative effect on salaries, etc., (see social work, teaching and other professions) the same has begun to be noted in the rabbinate and Jewish professional world as well.
Zelophehad’s daughters achieved a victory for themselves that was important for women of the time, but did not create equality for women. Judith Eisenstein achieved a victory by becoming a Bat Mitzvah in 1922 and Sally Priesand and Sandy Sasso achieved victories by becoming the first women rabbis in the early 1970s. These were important victories for Jewish women of the 20th and 21st centuries. But the long term effects of their victories for Jewish women —- and for all of Judaism — though significant, are still not what we would like them to be. We still need to continue to work toward full equality for women in all areas of Judaism, just as work still needs to be done in the secular world.
We should be proud that Reconstructionism has always been in the forefront of women’s rights and true egalitarianism within Judaism. All the more reason for us to be in the forefront of continuing the important work begun by Sandy Sasso and Judith Kaplan (Eisenstein) as well as by Mordecai Kaplan, Ira Eisenstein and the numerous other men who have always been allies and leaders in the fight for egalitarianism within Judaism. We can also see ourselves — women and men alike — as inheritors of the tradition and bravery of the daughters of Zelophehad. That way we can view the egalitarianism we continue to develop today as the logical extension and progression of their work chronicled in this week’s parasha.