This is exciting. This is a moment of courage and birthing: the birth of feminism many years before the word "feminism" was invented and the idea behind it articulated, as we read in our Torah portion, Pinchas:
"The daughters of Zelophehad…. came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said: 'Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the factions, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the Eternal, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son. Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!' Moses brought their case before the Eternal. And the Eternal said to 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.'” (Num. 27:1-7)
We must read the verbs in this story carefully, with a lot of pride and respect for the courage of five sisters who, "came forward… stood before…. they said… give us a holding…."
Our weekly portion invites us to honor Jewish feminism.
The daughters of Zelophehad came forward and stood up as leaders promoting the rights of women in their time. Their actions serve as an example to motivate struggles for women's rights in our time.
It would not be an exaggeration to argue that the feminist revolution is among the most decisive events in human civilization. This revolution changes the lives of individuals, families, the community — in fact, it changes the lives of all people in a profound way.
Prior to the present-day feminist revolution, one half of humanity ruled over the other half. Every place through which the path of this revolution passes, the female half of humanity is liberated and the male half is freed from the tormenting chains on their conscience of controlling others.
This amounts to more than the liberation of women
While liberating women is no minor matter, this achievement does not sum up the essence and ultimate purpose of the feminist revolution.
The feminist movement is only part of the liberation movement, and as such, it includes in it a demand and an ethical responsibility for the liberation of all humans from oppression. Every feminist must see the rights of people who are LGBTQ, who have disabilities, and who are oppressed as a crucial part of their mission. Whomever attempts to separate the feminist revolution from other struggles for freedom saws off from the tree the ethical branch on which she or he sits.
Eventually the “wow” arrives
As with every other major revolution, those who adapt to feminist thinking discover that this alters how she or he perceives all of reality. I have seen this in myself and I have seen this in my friends. Eventually the "wow" arrives.
There is a moment wherein one understands that this is an all-encompassing revolution, and the lenses through which we have looked at the world until that moment are replaced. From that moment onward, every practical issue, every religious and ethical question, is examined through the lenses of feminism and freedom.
The wow of Modern Orthodoxy in Israel
The moment of the feminist wow is happening now in Modern Orthodoxy in Israel. This is a grand and beautiful moment in this community. It began with the opening of beitei midrash (centers of Torah and text study) and Talmudic studies for women. Now, egalitarian Orthodox minyanim are popping up like mushrooms after the rain, and each new minyan is bolder and more daring in its egalitarianism than the previous one to open. Women function as legal authorities in State Rabbinic courts, as poskot (adjudicators of halachah, Jewish law), and are already demanding to be tested for Orthodox rabbinic ordination. The roles of ritual bath house attendants and supervisors, administrators of rabbinic courts, adjudicators of halachah, and interpreters of the Torah all fall under the lens of Orthodox feminism, and it is hard to keep up with the pace of the changes.
Is this an end to interdenominational division?
Some feminist awakenings inspire optimism regarding the question of the relationship between Jewish denominations in the modern period.
One of them is Women of the Wall.
One of the most prominent identifying signs that distinguishes Orthodoxy from liberal denominations is the mechitza, the wall separating the sexes in houses of prayer. The division of women from men was established through men's exclusive supremacy in Torah study, communal leadership, giving Torah sermons, and leading prayer. In the past, these have been major differences between the denominations.
The undermining of the patriarchal legitimacy has led to a reexamination of many of these "sacred cows." Within the framework of this rare experience, the fence dividing Jewish movements is being eroded. Until only a few years ago, Orthodox women consented to obey rabbinic authority on all matters, including the question of distancing themselves from liberal denominations. However, today, this demand is being reexamined and, it seems, it is no longer heeded.
We manage to pray together
Women of the Wall is a group composed of members who prefer the covenant of feminism to denominational covenants. It is important to emphasize that efforts at reunification are common to women and people of all the denominations. We are all demanding to reread the map. We all refuse to accept the denominational divisions created by a patriarchal system. We are challenging our borders.
Women of various denominations in Israel have succeeded in praying together. If, in those distant days when I abandoned Orthodoxy (approximately 25 years ago), someone would have told me that I would connect with women who insist on praying at the Western Wall, I would have exploded in laughter or anger. What would I, the rationalist, have to do with worshipping wood and stone? But I’ve done it. I have, on occasion, joined the Women of the Wall at the Kotel, not because an appreciation for praying in front of stones suddenly sprouted in my heart, but because I value supporting my sisters over my own specific religious dogmas.
It is my most heartfelt prayer that we draw strength from Zelophehad's daughters, and that one day, as we face new challenges and new covenants together, maybe with God's help we will end the division between the denominations.
(This article was translated with the help of Uzi Bar Pinchas,)