Last week, the nine men and women who serve as Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States wrestled with questions of equal access, fairness and discrimination in their deliberations about the Voting Rights Act, the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8.
This week, we commemorate July 4th, the 237th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence; we celebrate the egalitarian vision of America’s founders.
We also read a double portion that concludes the book of Numbers. Both address the relationship of gender and marital status to one’s ability to make a vow, serve as a witness and inherit property.
Our Torah teaches that issues of fairness and equality are complex. Do some individuals need protection to ensure that they can enjoy a full range of freedoms, and if so, what should be the nature of that protection? Should gender and marital status determine one’s rights, privileges and access to opportunity? As American Jews, we still wrestle with these questions.
The Supreme Court’s deliberations reflect that, over time, we human beings come to understand ourselves, and the world, in new ways. Like the American Constitution, our Torah is a living document. Following the instruction of Ben Bag Bag, we “turn it, turn it,” studying and parsing and interpreting our sacred text.
In the second of this week’s portions, Masei, we meet, once again, five women who were introduced in last week’s portion titled Pinchas. The daughters of Tzelophehad courageously challenge Moses to consider their legitimacy, as women, and as heirs to their father’s estate. With a clear understanding of both custom and law, they ask for, and win, their rights, changing biblical law and setting a historic precedent for womens’ inheritance.
In Masei, members of the daughters’ tribe are concerned about the future of this inheritance and they ask Moses for guidance. Directed by God, Moses responds that the daughters of Tzelophehad “may marry anyone they wish, provided they marry into a clan of their father’s tribe … ”
Moses’ words conclude with a striking reminder about the power and uniqueness of this sisterhood; every time they are mentioned, each one of the five sisters is named: “The daughters of Tzelophehad did as God had commanded Moses: Machlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah … so their share remained in the tribe of their father’s clan.”
The daughters “may marry anyone they wish” within limits. This biblical “solution” invites contemporary readers into lively discussion. How do we understand this freedom — and restriction? How might such a situation be explored in one of our communities? How might we consider the Supreme Court’s discussion of “freedom to marry” in the light of our Torah text?
It is the custom in many synagogues to conclude each book of the Torah by rising and chanting, “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek: Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened.” We can also read the final word as “let us strengthen one another.”
When we study Torah together, we strengthen tradition. May we, like Moses, continue to consider new approaches to old and new questions, renewing ourselves and our beloved tradition.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: [email protected]