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A Blow Against Gender Bias in Ancient Israel
Although this week's parshah begins midway through the story of its namesake, the zealous grandson of Aaron, who brutally killed an Israelite who cohabited with a Midianite woman, I want to focus attention first on an episode that comes later in the portion.
After resolving the Pinchas story -- God grants the impassioned young priest his brit shalom, "Covenant of Peace" -- we find a census of the people, which contains an obscure footnote in the tribe of Manasseh: "Now Zelophehad son of Hepher had no sons, only daughters.
"The names of Zelophehad's daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah." (Numbers 26:33).
Once the census is completed, the text returns to these five daughters, restates Zelophehad's lineage and repeats the womens' names. The daughters complain to Moses that their father's name should not be lost to his clan simply because he had no son.
In other words, the women claim that they should inherit the wealth. Moses consults with God, who agrees with the claim, and Moses then enacts a new statute that, in the absence of male inheritors, women can step in. There is one caveat of course, a daughter-inheritor may marry only within the tribe of her father, so that his land does not pass to the tribe of her husband.
More than most sections of the Torah, the story of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah -- must we really continue to refer to them by their father's name? -- offers a clear window into the place of women in a highly patriarchal society. The story is a victory for the rights of daughters, granting them some economic and legal rights when their father dies and they have no brother to assume the role of family leadership.
While this is a victory, it is only partial, because the majority of daughters had no independent inheritance rights and still depended on others -- first, a father or older brother and then a husband -- for economic security.
This text gives us a hint of the level of female exclusion in the social order of ancient Israel. Wealth passed from father to son or from father to son-in-law in the case of a marriage. A widow depended upon her sons to provide for her from her late husband's wealth even though some of that wealth derived from her own dowry. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah stand out through their exceptional status.
Patriarchal Staying Power
The text inspires us to reconsider issues of gender fairness, equality, opportunity and justice. The vestiges of patriarchy are still strong in Jewish life (repeated studies show the underrepresentation of women in senior positions in all institutions of Jewish life). But these five claimants challenge us to look at the other side of feminism as well.
Feminism has always been about more than equal access and rights. Feminism also examines the sources of our tradition to discover the ways in which gender influences the Jewish individual and people. Surely, rights and access are a part of this influence, but the tendencies, relationships, attitudes, experiences, and perspectives of characters in the texts, and the Jews reading the texts, will shape different forms of Judaism.
In 1976, a radical feminist reading of this text may have elucidated the level of patriarchy in Jewish history and opened eyes to the endemic sexism and inequality in our past (and present). While those problems persist, the feminist reading of 2006 goes further to examine the ways that all of us can learn from these five courageous individuals in how we live as women and men today.
Rabbi Michael Holzman is an associate rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City.