A poem in the Jewish Women's Literary Annual
17 Tammuz, justice, and broken walls

What we can learn from the daughters of Zelophechad

Five daughters of Zelophechad by Sheila Orysiek. [Source]

A fascinating thing happens in this week's Torah portion, which is called Pinhas. The daughters of Zelophechad -- Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah -- come before Moshe. And they say:

"Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah's faction, which banded together against the Lord, 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!"

Moshe doesn't know what to do. So he brings their case before God directly. And God answers him and says:

"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.

"Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: 'If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.... This shall be the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with the Lord's command to Moses."

Here's what's interesting to me about this passage. First, that these women have the holy chutzpah to come before Moshe and plead their case. The default understanding was that property passed from fathers to sons. But somehow, they have the certainty and strength to act on their convictions and ask for what they know is right.

Secondly, Moshe takes the case directly to the highest authority -- which is to say, the Holy Blessed One. It was clear to him that Torah as he'd received it didn't say anything about women inheriting property; but apparently it was equally clear to him that denying these women their family's inheritance would be unjust. So he asked God.

And thirdly, God's response is swift and unequivocal. God says, what these women are asking is just. Give them an inheritance. Furthermore, if a man dies without a legal heir, from now on, let Torah teach that his property goes to his daughter.

This wasn't entirely unique in antiquity. The Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian law code written down around 1750 BCE, protects a woman's right to hold and inherit property. But it's still meaningful that Torah enshrines a mechanism for women inheriting property. Rebecca West famously quipped that feminism is "the radical notion that women are people." This is an early instance of what one might call a strand of feminism embedded in our holy text.

Of course, it's only a small step forward. If there are brothers, in the Biblical context, the brothers are the ones to inherit. Women only inherit if there are no men who can do so. And once a property-holding woman marries, the property returns to the man into whose care she enters; for this reason, the daughters of Zelophechad will need to marry men from their father's tribe. But it's still a step in what I would call the right direction.

We no longer have the luxury of directly asking God what to do when we're faced with thorny questions of legal and moral interpretation. In our religious / spiritual lives, we have the obligation of engaging with our holy texts ourselves, learning them widely and wisely enough to be able to reach our own determinations. And of course we've inherited a rich and broad tradition of interpretation on which we can draw. In our secular / legal lives, we bring instances of injustice to the courts, and we hope and pray that they will rule justly.

There's an interesting confluence this week between reading the story of the daughters of Zelophechad, and waiting anxiously for the Supreme Court's ruling on DOMA, hoping and praying that their ruling will be compassionate and just. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah take their case to the highest authority in the land -- Moshe, who serves both as a legal leader and a spiritual one -- and Moshe in turn takes the case to God and receives a ruling which is righteous and compassionate. God's ruling enshrines women's rights and, in a sense, women's full humanity. I pray that SCOTUS will offer their ruling in the same spirit, acknowledging the full humanity of all and recognizing that every couple has the right to marry, regardless of gender.

Reading the story of the daughters of Zelophechad this week as it coincides with these issues in our national news can teach us that when something is unjust, it's worth speaking up. That the road to a world of complete justice is long and takes many turns, and one generation's victories may need to be fought-for again in generations to come. That we shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but embrace positive change whenever we can reach it. That our social distinctions -- whether Biblical views on women, or historically-recent definitions of marriage -- aren't permanent, and that in the eyes of God, justice and compassion trump our human categories.

And I hope this week's Torah portion can remind us that change is possible. That as humanity evolves and becomes more kind, more just, and more enlightened, we can collectively make choices which give the full rights of personhood to everyone. Kein yehi ratzon: may it be so.