Success of Zelophehad’s Daughters Instructive to Those Who Protest Today

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By Rabbi Robyn Frisch

Parshat Pinchas

I took my 11-year-old daughter to her first protest last week. It was a post-Shabbat demonstration outside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem.

The sign she was holding said, “Bibi, Gam Ani Yehudiah” (“Bibi, I’m Jewish Too”). Other signs at the protest had sayings such as “Kotel [Western Wall] For Entire Jewish Nation,” and “There’s More Than One Way To Be Jewish.”

As I stood with my daughter and hundreds of other protestors from all over Israel and the Diaspora, I couldn’t help but think of an early generation of daughters who stood up to demand their rights: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah — the daughters of Zelophehad in the Bible.

We first encounter the daughters of Zelophehad in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas. The Israelites are wandering in the wilderness, and before they enter the Promised Land to conquer it, the land is allotted among the tribes. In our Torah portion, God instructs Moses and Eleazar the priest, son of Aaron, to take a census of all the male Israelites over the age of 20 so that the land can be apportioned among them.

But the five daughters of Zelophehad, who was from the tribe of Menasseh, come forward in protest. They argue that since their father died without having had sons they should receive land within the territory of Menasseh.

Moses brings their case before God, who informs Moses: “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just; you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.” God further instructs Moses to tell the Israelites that “when a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.”

In taking a stand, Zelophehad’s daughters cause God to recognize that the status quo is unjust, and that under certain circumstances land should be given to women. Later on, in order to ensure territorial integrity and that land won’t pass from one tribe to another, God bids Moses to instruct the Israelites that women who inherit land must marry within their own tribe.

God doesn’t grant women rights of inheritance identical to those of men — women can only inherit land if they don’t have any brothers and if they don’t marry a man from outside of their tribe — but at least they have some rights. Even in the patriarchal society of biblical times, an adaptation is made to accommodate women, ensuring fairness and a greater sense of equality.

The protesters — a group made up of Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, secular Jews and others — my daughter and I joined last week outside of Netanyahu’s residence believe that Netanyahu should follow God’s example in our Torah portion and recognize and act upon our claims challenging injustice.

We were protesting because the prior Sunday, Netanyahu had frozen a January 2016 agreement — which had been drafted after years of negotiations between representatives of different streams of Judaism — ensuring an official egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel overseen by all streams of Judaism.

As in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters, the agreement didn’t grant liberal Jews total equality. As Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in The Times of Israel, “It was a noble compromise: The liberal denominations accepted with humility a secondary place at the Wall, but that at least recognized their right to be part of Israel’s public space; while the Orthodox seemed to accept an organized non-Orthodox presence at the Wall for the sake of Jewish unity.”

(On top of this, on the same day that Netanyahu suspended the Kotel agreement, he supported a new bill introduced in the Knesset that would give a total monopoly on Jewish conversions in Israel to the haredi-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. The conversion bill was shelved for six months on Friday before the protest.)

More than 3,500 years ago, as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, Zelophehad’s daughters spoke up to ensure that they would have inheritance rights within the Land of Israel. God recognized that their claim was just and granted it, while imposing certain limitations in order to ensure a competing claim regarding territorial integrity.

Today, Jews from throughout the world are speaking up and asking to have our rights in the very same land with regard to prayer and conversion be recognized, even as we acknowledge and accept that there will be certain limitations to our rights.

This week, as we read the story of Zelophehad’s daughters’ plea for justice, I pray that just as God heard their plea, our plea will be heard, and justice will be granted.

Rabbi Robyn Frisch is the director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia and the spiritual leader of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.