Five Sisters Who Turned the Key to Unlock the Torah

July 13, 2017Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser

This week's Torah portion, Pinchas, includes the story of five sisters who came before Moses to challenge a law. The story interests us from a feminist perspective because the sisters triumphed in the end and changed the law to their benefit and the benefit of all women. However, the story also is a fitting example of how Jewish tradition understands the need for Torah to change.

At some point, just about everyone who begins the serious study of Torah asks themselves this question: How did the rabbis get away with making up so many laws that have so little basis in the text of the Torah? For example, the Torah says absolutely nothing about the fate of a woman whose husband divorces her, but the rabbis developed a complex marriage contract – the ketubah – to protect women from cruel poverty after divorce. Where did the rabbis get the right to alter the Torah to this extent?

The answer, of course, is that they got the right to change the Torah from the Torah itself.

The ancient rabbis knew that they went far afield in their interpretations. They admit it in the Mishnah (interpretation of Jewish oral law), in which they discuss the many laws they pronounced based on just a few scant verses. The sages say, “The laws concerning Shabbat, the festival offerings, and the transfer of sacred items for secular use are all mountains suspended by a hair! Scripture teaches little about them but the laws we derive are many!” (M. Chagigah 1:8).

In fact, rabbinic Judaism is based on exactly this kind of far-reaching interpretation. In the time of the rabbis, the survival of the Torah depended upon it.

The Torah is the product of an agricultural civilization built around a powerful king and a Temple in which priests oversaw sacrifices to earn God's protection for the nation. That civilization quickly was becoming irrelevant by the first century C.E. when the rabbis took center stage. They recognized that to maintain the core values of the Torah, they had to show that hidden in the rules about herding cattle and offering sacrifices was a guide that taught spiritual lessons.

The rabbis had to adapt the Torah to the needs of people in an age that was predominantly urban, had lost the sovereignty of its king, was influenced by the universal ideals of Greek philosophy, and increasingly was skeptical of the inherited authority of priests. They used interpretation to transform the Torah into a teaching fit for philosophers and ethicists, instead of one for farmers, priests, and kings.

How did they unlock the Torah to make such transforming interpretations? The key was in the lock itself, waiting for a hand to turn it.

In the story of the daughters of Zelophechad, the five sisters came before Moses to present a grievance. The law stated that land could be inherited only by males. Since their recently deceased father had no male heirs, his inheritance would be scattered to the other men of the tribe. Their father's name would be lost to history and his land would permanently enter the possession of other families.

Machlah, Noah, Choglah, Milkah and Tirzah went to Moses and said, “Why should our father’s name be lost to his family just because he had no son! Give us land to possess along with the rest of our father’s kin!” (Numbers 27:4). Moses heard their protest and could say nothing until he “brought the case before Adonai” (Numbers 27:5).

God instructed Moses that the daughters of Zelophechad were correct. When a man dies without leaving a male heir, God said, the daughters would be given possession of the land as the equals of their father's kinsmen. The previously pronounced law was challenged and changed through a new act of interpretation to meet an unforeseen need.

That is the power of the Torah – and the power of interpreting the Torah, which is first exemplified by the Torah itself! The Torah contains within itself the flexibility to change and to be rediscovered and reinterpreted again and again.

In our own time, when so much has changed in the way we view the dignity of human beings – regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation – we can view this story as a reminder that keeping the Torah does not mean refusing to change. Rather, the Torah itself asks that we look at moral implications to adapt the law to meet the needs of the times. Not only does such a practice keep Torah relevant, it draws Torah out of stagnation and into the realm of the joy of the human spirit, ensuring that its central teachings survive and thrive in a changing world.

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