Pinhas 5776 - 2016 - a message of change

Post date: Jul 29, 2016 3:07:17 AM

Parshat Pinhas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

This week’s parsha – Pinhas – continues to story of the children of Israel after the prophet Bilaam devised a devious plan to destroy us - the seduction of Jewish men by Midianite ritual prostitutes. Our ancestors initially succombed to this plan, but as a result of their moral turpitude, a plague swept through the Israelite encampment, killing twenty-four thousand.

God speaks to the Israelites and tells them to retaliate, to smite the Midianite people. God then asks Moses and Eleazar (son of Aaron, now the high priest) to perform another census of the tribes. The Torah continues by enumerating each tribe – its lineage and population.

But then a unique and powerful parable appears, a story that will define our moral compass as Jews forever after: the first historical record of advocacy for women's rights.

The five daughters of Zelophehad come forward and speak to Moses and Eleazar. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah tell Moses that their father died, though not in the company of Korach and the rebels that joined him. They also tell Moses and Eleazar that their father had no sons. “Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son?” they ask. “Give unto us a possession among the brethren of our father.”

Moses brings this question to God, asking what should be done. God responds, “The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: you shall surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father's brethren; and you shall cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them.” God then goes on to say that, in all future cases, if a man dies and has no sons, his inheritance will pass to his daughter.

Reading the Torah, this can seem either horrendously misogynistic, or unbelievably progressive. On the one hand, the Torah is clearly privileging men over women – sons over daughters. On the other hand, for the time and place this text was written, the idea that a woman could, under any circumstances, inherit her father’s land and possessions, was revolutionary.

In my mind, this passage highlights some of the challenge with canonical religious text. How can we see the Torah both as a foundational, holy book, while also placing it into its proper historical context?

It is a testament to Jewish practicality (or perhaps Darwinistic natural selection), that all active sects of Judaism have found ways to negate passages in the Torah, and render them non-applicable to modern, daily life.

Whether it is ultra Orthodox Jews determining that there is no plausible way to convene the Sanhedrin or Reform Jews viewing all of halacha as an individual’s choice, no modern Jews engage in the most controversial of practices proscribed in the Torah. Slavery, stoning, and other means of putting sinners to death have been abandoned as Jewish communities have moved through time, and continued to both influence and learn from the larger societies in which we live.

There is no doubt that the Torah itself, in this parsha, in this story of Zelophehad's daughters, reflects this very progress we have seen through the 3,500 years of Jewish existence – when considered in the context of other ancient Near Eastern societies, Israelite society was particularly progressive. It provided clear provisions to support orphans and widows (an early form of social justice), a system of justice based on universally applicable principles, banning of practices such as child sacrifice, and, here, allowances for women to inherit in the absence of living male heirs.

However, Judaism, like all other long lasting religious communities, is plagued with the question of how to modernize, while still retaining the values, principles, and practices of our ancestors. To what degree must we hold fast to the texts that have made us who we are today, and to what degree must we step back and understand these texts as historically-bound documents that can only tangentially inform modern living? This is essentially the same struggle we Americans have faced between a strict constructionist (originalist) understanding of our Constitution and what is commonly known as judicial activism.

In my view, understanding the historical context in which the Torah was written, and the ancient audience for which it was originally intended, gives us the message that the Israelite community is viewed (and views itself) as separate from other ancient Near Eastern societies, from the most basic meaning of ‘Kadosh’ - holy, wholly, or separate.

Much biblical scholarship shows us that practices banned in the Torah (such as child sacrifice) were commonplace in societies living alongside the Israelite people. It is difficult not to place some sort of value judgment here, and say that the Israelites were held to a “higher” standard, “progressive,” or “advanced.” Keeping these thoughts at bay, there is an unmistakable message that the Israelites are different, and that this is accepted. It is not necessary to blend in, and not important to keep to the status quo.

How can we put this into practice today? I think we must take passages in the Torah, like the one in our parsha this week that permits inheritance to women, as a charge to be critical thinkers. The daughters of Zelophehad did not simply throw up their hands and give in to the accepted practice of allowing only male heirs. Instead, they questioned the practice, and questioned it in a powerful way – they went straight to Moses and Eleazar, the leaders of the community.

Importantly, the daughters do not use anger, fear, or violence in the face of their displeasure. They do, however, ask pointedly if the way things have always been is the way they must continue to be. The use the law. Of note, women in the Torah are not a privileged group, making the actions of Zelophehad’s daughters even more impressive.

As modern Jews, I think we must be as brave as Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. We must look upon the accepted practices in our communities with a critical eye, and have the strength to question these practices if we believe them to be problematic. Listening to the leaders of our community, state, or country is undeniably important – we cannot think of ourselves as separate from the world in which we live. However, we must also have the will and resolve to openly and critically consider the values, ideas, and policies that are promoted and supported by those around us.

I pray we may have the the reason, the courage, and the dignity of Zelophehad’s daughters: the reason to recognize our human imperfections, the courage to change them, and the dignity to respect the community while advocating change.

Shabbat shalom,

Yvonne Asher, Samuel Asher