Revolutionary Women in the Bible and Now

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10−30:1

D'Var Torah By: Dr. Ruhama Weiss, Ph.D.

women protesting

Celebrating bravery

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,)

Dr. Ruhama Weiss, Ph.D., is the director of the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem. 

In Hindsight the Revolution Is Obvious

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana

Hands raised at a protest rallyFor all that many of us feel challenged by this particular era in American history, it is remarkable to look back on what has been accomplished. I grew up in a place and time where segregation of the races was accepted by many as the natural order of things. I grew up in an era where the wall of the mechitza was an accepted reflection of the separate roles that men and women held in society: even in my progressive Conservative synagogue women had no aliyot. I grew up in a time when the law viewed homosexual activity as criminal.

No revolution is universal and equal justice remains denied in the United States in the today in each of these realms. Institutional racism remains, there is still no federal law protecting LGBTQ citizens in the workplace, and as of today the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to rule on equal protection in the market place as well. And, curiously, we still don’t have an Equal Rights Amendment in the Constitution protecting the equal rights of women. We don’t even have pay equity!

And yet, we have come far. Marriage equality is the law of the land. The law forbids racial discrimination in housing, even as it exists in practice. And the glass ceiling for women continues, far too slowly, to be shattered.

The feminist revolution has indeed remade society for the better. The gains remain hard-fought and ever in danger of devolution. The new retrograde state laws restricting a woman’s right to full reproductive health care are examples of how fragile the gains can be, as are voting rights violations and discrimination in adoption.

Still, it is good to remind ourselves of how far we have come, how changed the world of today is from generations past.

In Parashat Pinchas, the daughters of Zelophehad began a revolution with a simple claim — a challenge to the status quo of inheritance rights. “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son!” (Num. 27:4).

Curiously, Moses had no answer. Was the idea of gender inclusion too radical for him? Did he fear a revolt if he spoke on his own authority? Or did he lack moral certitude?

The midrash, commenting from a future era, criticizes Moses for not speaking the obvious. Remarkably, it paints Moses’ hesitation as a punishment from God for his earlier arrogance:

"Because Moses had boasted: 'The cause that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me and I will hear it' (Deut. 1:17), God diminished Moses’ mental powers (emphasis added)... When the daughters of Zelophehad came, God concealed the law from him." (B’midbar Rabbah 21:12)

Of course, the midrash seems to state, Moses should have known the answer. But God had to intervene: "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. 27:7).

God speaks with the moral clarity that Moses lacked. By speaking so forcefully, God makes it clear that this is not a singular case, but a standard by which to judge future acts of inequality. The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just.

To us, this statement can feel obvious. Of course the outcome was known. And so it was to the writer of the midrash who saw Moses diminished for not taking a stand. So we can easily look back on previous eras and shake our heads in disbelief at their primitivism. And we can be easily discouraged when we lose ground or when our successes are not complete. But the goal of creating a world of equal justice takes work and constant vigilance. It doesn’t hurt to occasionally stop and appreciate the successes along the way before renewing our efforts.

And when we lose faith, it is helpful to remember God’s statement to Moses here — the desire that a God of justice wants us to be partners in creating a world of justice. For God, there is no hesitation in the face of discrimination, nor should there be for us. The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just.

Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, OR, and chair of the Resolutions Committee for the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Reference Materials

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10−30:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,194−1,215; Revised Edition, pp. 1,072−1,094
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 961–968
First Haftarah of Affliction, Jeremiah 1:1−2:3;
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,278−1,281; Revised Edition, pp. 1,113–1,115

Originally published: