"This is what the Eternal has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: They may marry anyone they wish, provided they marry into a clan of their father's tribe. No inheritance of the Israelites may pass over from one tribe to another" (Numbers 36:6–7).
We first meet the daughters of Zelophehad in Parashat Pinchas when they are granted inheritance rights from their father in the absence of any sons. As trailblazing as it was for them to argue for and succeed in receiving inheritance rights, the end of Parashat Mas-ei qualifies this victory by mandating that they must marry within their tribe. This legislation serves to protect tribal lands in a society that was committed to and balanced upon the tribal system. A mandate that restricts who one can marry is problematic.
Like Zelophehad's daughters, we in the Reform Movement are inheritors of a tradition that champions the prophetic vision. We challenge the status quo, speaking truth to power when necessary, and allow Torah to guide our sense of right and wrong. In the tradition of Zelophehad's daughters, the Reform Movement has repeatedly challenged the status quo, establishing new norms for the practice and expression of Judaism worldwide.
While Zelophehad's daughters stand out due to their actions and the very fact that they are even named in the text, we meet other, equally impressive women in our Torah who pave the way and blaze trails. Just as the fourth book of the Torah concludes with women, the Book of Exodus begins with strong female forces. In Parashat Sh'mot we meet Shiphrah and Puah, the two midwives; Moses's unnamed mother and sister, later identified as Jochebed and Miriam; and Pharaoh's daughter. These women all are instrumental in saving children's lives and thus they are key in moving our collective story forward. They, like the daughters of Zelophehad, are courageous, resourceful, and daring. As a result, they change the course of history for the ancient Israelites, and for the Jewish people. With five significant women beginning the Book of Exodus and five ending it in Numbers, our journey out of Egypt to this moment when the people are poised on the threshold of Canaan is masterfully bookended by strong women.
In Proverbs 6:20 we read, "Do not forsake your mother's Torah." We would be remiss to read our sacred text with little to no attention to the contributions and role of women throughout. Even when women are not mentioned, there is something to learn: omission, too, speaks volumes. Women are prominently featured in the Book of Numbers, from the case of the wife suspected of adultery (Numbers 5:11-31), to the laws that determine which vows a woman must honor (Numbers 30), to laws of inheritance when a man has no sons but only daughters. As my teacher Rabbi Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi points out, the story of Zelophehad's daughters, "depicts a situation in which a Torah law emerges not from Sinai but from the women themselves."1
The profound impact of women in Torah has birthed a wealth of poetry as moving as the women it seeks to honor. Take the following piece entitled "Miriam" by Marsha Pravder Mirkin, based on Exodus 2:4–8, where Miriam hides at a distance as Pharaoh's daughter discovers the baby Moses in a basket:
I hid by the river, a young lioness, crouching,
ready to jump, keeping myself still. And then
she came—the princess dressed in her golden
clothing. . . . That day changed my life and the life
of the princess. I was no longer simply Moses'
sister, and she was no longer simply Pharaoh's
daughter. We were God's daughters, an army of
resisters, with our weapons of love and faith. 2
Despite the impactful role of women in our sacred text and the changes they initiated, there were times in which the patriarchal nature of our tradition and the text could only bend and stretch so far. That is why we, inheritors of this tradition, standing upon the shoulders of those who came before us, must continue to argue for what is just. This means advocating for the right of every individual irrespective of race, religion, sexual orientation, or economic position to enjoy the same privileges and joys of marriage under the law. Perhaps we who are the descendants of all of the brave women of Torah can build upon their legacy by continuing to stand up with courage and grace for the rights of all people to live freely and in God's image.
- Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, ed., Andrea L. Weiss, assoc. ed., The Torah: A Woman's Commentar, (New York: Women of Reform Judaism and URJ Press, 2007), p. 788
- ibid., p. 329
Rabbi Laurie Rice is co-senior rabbi at Congregation Micah in Nashville, Tennessee, where she shares the pulpit with her husband, Rabbi Philip "Flip" Rice.