By Rabbi Laurie Rice
“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all your settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)
These words, which we will read later in the summer from the fifth book of our Torah, serve to remind us of a lesson from Parashat Pinchas, a lesson about judgment and about fairness. Pursuing justice is not always easy, even for God.
It happens that the daughters of Zelophehad-Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah-approach Moses with the claim that they deserve to inherit their father’s land since their father has died without leaving a male heir. God informs Moses that their cause is just and that he must transfer their father’s share to them. “And the Eternal One said to Moses: ‘The plea of Zelophad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them’ ” (Numbers 27:6-7).
Zelophehad’s daughters argue that if they are not given the land, their father’s name will be lost. In the final chapter of Numbers, the tribal leaders of Manasseh protest (Numbers 36). They argue that if the daughters of Zelophehad are given their father’s land and marry outside of the tribe of Manasseh, that land will pass from father to son into another tribe. God rules that the arguments of the tribal leaders of Manasseh are just and the daughters of Zelophehad are told they must marry within the tribe in order to maintain their land holdings.
At first glance, God’s judgment seems a victory for Zelophehad’s daughters and for all Israelite women with regard to inheritance rights. But then, we can ask the question: Why does the Bible give women no inheritance rights except in the case where there are no sons? Despite this exceptional ruling found in Parashat Pinchas, why is it that the Torah appears to discriminate against women, specifically a woman’s right to inherit the land that once belonged to her parents?
Professor Paula E. Hyman writes, “Within the framework of traditional Judaism, women are not legal entities. Like the minor, the deaf-mute, and the idiot, they cannot serve as witnesses in Jewish courts . . . they do not inherit equally with male heirs; they play only a passive role in the Jewish marriage ceremony; and they cannot initiate divorce proceedings” (“The Other Half: Women in Jewish Tradition,” in Conservative Judaism , Summer, 1972). Many, such as Professor Hyman, have written about the second class status of women in the Bible as exemplified through cases such as that of Zelophehad’s daughters. (Note the irony that we refer to them by their father’s name rather than their own). Perhaps we are meant to read this text, and others like it, not simply to engage in a dialogue about feminist rights (as important as that ongoing conversation may be), but to always be asking the larger question: Who are the marginalized within our community?
Sometimes the answer is women, indeed. When we ignore the plight of the undocumented within our borders, it is the stranger. When we turn our back on the homeless or the hungry, it is the less-fortunate. When we remain silent on hot-button issues such as the need for increased gun control, it is our children. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah bring their protest to the public square, in front of the Tent of Meeting. In modern terms, they were given a five-minute interview segment on the Today Show , two minutes in the Oval Office. They were the lucky ones. How many of our disenfranchised, our marginalized, our forgotten go unheard? It is our Jewish responsibility to listen for their voices and to respond to their pleas. They, too, have names–first names and last names.
Make no mistake, the sisters in our parashah challenged and altered an unjust Torah law. This was no small feat. Standing up for their rights, they extended fair treatment for others. As we read this parashah year after year, as we turn it and turn it again, let it not be enough for women’s rights. This time through, may we be inspired by their courage and strength to do the same for others and bring their voices to the front of the Tent of Meeting.
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.