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The Daughters of Tzelophechad and Equal Obligation

Parashat Pinchas - July 2, 2021

Parshat Pinchas is often seen as a huge win for women! The daughters of Tzelophechad, named Machla, Noah, Chaglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah, achieve the new Israelite reality that if a man has no sons, his daughters can inherit his property too! (Side note: Midrash declares that because the four daughters’ names show up in different orders throughout our story, we can surmise that all four daughters are equally righteous.) Of course, later in our story, women who inherit as such will be limited in their marriage prospects so that their inheritance will stay within the family. Elsewhere in our parshah, in a long list of geneology, a woman’s name - Serah, daughter of Asher - suddenly appears. It is such a surprise that a female name appears here and in an earlier list of names in Torah that the Rabbis of the Talmud tell fantastical stories of Serah’s long life, beauty, and prestige. I have to be honest. It pains me a bit to see the small victories of a few women, who are all introduced as daughters of their fathers, trumpeted as giant successes in Biblical women’s rights. Elsewhere in Torah, wives are left out of holiday celebrations, and daughters are sold to the highest bidder.

Sifrei Bamidbar, an early Midrash, hits home for me when it describes the daughters’ pep talk: The Torah text states: “And the daughters of Tzelofchad drew near” (Numbers 27:1). What did they say to each other in that close group huddle? Flesh and blood - human beings - do not have the same mercies as God. While the mercies of flesh and blood are greater for males than for females, the One who spoke and brought the world into being possesses mercies for males and for females. God’s mercies are for all! As it is written [in Psalms]: “God is good to all, and God’s mercies are upon all of Creation!” (Psalms 145:9). The Midrash, then, puts the idea on the table that even though human beings might tend towards favoring men, in the end, God respects men and women equally.

In the society of Tanakh, and later, of Talmud, women are placed on a lower pedestal than men. Yes, these are our holy texts, but at the same time, even these holy texts take place within a certain period of time. Whether you believe that God, Moses, or historical humans wrote the Torah and Talmud, each of these documents was composed in a specific time period, for the specific readers of that time period. Yes, they are eternal, but to keep them eternal and relevant for us, we must also look at them from the time period we live in now.

For the next few minutes, I am going to assume that those of us in this room value women as more than who their fathers and sons are. I am going to assume that the Jewish women in this room identify as Jews, not as daughters or wives of Jews. I am going to assume that we do not consider ourselves property and that we believe we have the right to make vows and promises without the consent of the men in our families. Our sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands hopefully feel responsible for us because of the love that they carry; however, we no longer are beholden to their whims as much as say, slaves are to their masters or young children are to their parents. If we hold all of these assumptions now, then we have problematized our traditional interpretation of women’s place in Jewish law and practice. 

In both Toraitic and Rabbinic law, the default recipients of commandments tend to be men. Before God’s big revelation at Sinai, for example, the people Israel are told to stay away from their women for three days - this is only one of many “you” commandments in Torah that assume male readership. In the Talmud, when a woman is obligated to do or not to do, she is often placed in the same category and slaves and minors, a category clearly subservient to others. In the Talmud, a woman may say Kiddush, but shame on the man who has to have his wife bless for him! She may read an aliyah of Torah, but she really should not, as it would be dishonorable to the community. And of course, any study of Torah for a woman is tiflut, licentiousness! In the Talmud, women are exempted from but not forbidden from wearing tzitzit, tefillin, praying the Amidah, and blowing the shofar, among other time-bound positive mitzvot. However, one voice in Talmud claims that only one who is obligated can fulfill that obligation for the public AND “greater is the one who is commanded and acts than one who is not commanded than acts.” According to such logic, a woman cannot lead services or blow the shofar for a man, as she is not as obligated as he. Further, when a woman does perform duties she has voluntarily chosen to take on, she is not as great as her male counterpart. A woman, in Torah and Talmud, is in a completely different category than a man, than the person whom these texts are directed towards. I would even venture to say that a woman, in Torah and Talmud, is in a completely different category than a Jew. 

I, personally, identify as a Jew and as a woman who holds her own authority in the world. When I am in a space in which an interpretation of Jewish law obligates men more than women and forbids women from performing the ritual acts that men have often come to cherish, I feel marked as an inferior, as one so beholden to the men around me that I don’t have time or space to be beholden to my God. And yet, I’m here on the bimah at Agudath Achim. I am deeply in love with so much of these texts and the messages they put forth. And I am one of the vast majority of female rabbis serving in Louisiana. So what do I do - what do we do with such cherished, and yet achingly patriarchal, texts and traditions? 

In his many lectures and essays about women’s place in halakhah, Rabbi Ethan Tucker gives three options: First, apologetics. We can say that although certain Jewish laws were composed in a different time than ours, we are still beholden to them either because of a sense of tradition or because this is the way God wants it. We can say that women are holier than men, and thus, don’t need to do as much to gain God’s trust. Or perhaps, women still act as the homemakers who don’t have time to pray three times a day and who do have so many sacred responsibilities that they could not possibly make that sort of time for extra Jewish practice. 

For me, apologetics is not enough. Throughout the Torah, we see women of great strength and wisdom, who get what they ask for when they ask for it. From Sarah, to Miriam, to Esther, to the daughters Tzelophechad, and beyond, the Torah seems to tell us that when women are ready, they can achieve, if they only ask and act. We are now at a time period in which women have asked and women have achieved in the secular world, and I believe that our religious world should reflect that reality. Yes, women are often homemakers, and yes, I believe that homemakers do have limited time for religious responsibility, but such limitations can also apply to the men who spend the majority of their time catering to small children or elderly parents. If anything, limitations in obligation should be applied to both the men and the women who are taking on the holy obligation of taking care of a family. In fact, I know some observant families who split the responsibilities of their daily prayer between them, alternating depending on whose turn it is to take care of the kids.

Rabbi Ethan Tucker’s second option for responding to patriarchal text and tradition is what he calls “incremental change.” Little by little, congregations or Jewish movements can allow or even recommend that women do more and more within the community. For example, certain modern Orthodox communities first allowed women to lead Psukei d’Zimrah, then to read Torah, and now to act as rabbinic figures. Women can choose, incrementally, what they feel comfortable taking on. Such an approach is also not enough for me, as it does not address the issue of obligation. As long as women as a class are not seen as obligated to all of the same mitzvot as men, women are still stuck in that category that represents women as a subservient class.

Then, we have Rabbi Tucker’s third category: paradigm shift. We shift the paradigm all at once, saying that both women and men are allowed, pushed towards, or obligated to the same mitzvot. As I no longer believe that the ancient category of women as presented in Torah and Talmud exists - or at least should exist - in our communities anymore, I believe that paradigm shift must take place. I take the stance of Rabbi Pamela Barmash in her statement on behalf of the Conservative movement: “Women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot, with the exception of those mitzvot that are determined by sexual anatomy.”  Now, the big issue that many people have with such a claim is that once we accept equality of obligation, women who don’t keep all of the mitzvot might be considered sinners! I’ll respond, then, by asking the rhetorical question of how many men in the room actually keep all of the mitzvot, every day. It is nearly impossible for anyone to be one hundred percent observant; however, it is possible for anyone to endeavor to perform as many mitzvot as she possibly can.  By recognizing that women are equally obligated, we recognize that even with all of our differences, both men and women are equal in their relationships with and obligations to God and the Jewish people. We are no longer a subservient class, and we should no longer be practicing our religion as if we were.

 In practice, halakhic equality of women begins with children’s education. In camps and religious schools, boys and girls should be taught that tallit and tefillin are expectations of their future practice. To this end, I wonder if it would make sense for us to pause before asking a male guest if he wants a tallit if we were not to ask the same of a woman. What might it mean for us to have more feminine looking tallitot out for guests and community members to borrow during a service, to encourage women to venture into the practice? As a community, we are currently an incredibly dynamic group of women and men, passionate about our Jewish practice and expression. Women and men lead services, read and teach Torah, and act in leadership positions in our synagogue. As represented by our hearts and our hands, we exemplify the social reality we know to be true today. But I sometimes see hesitation in women in the community to take on further mitzvot, and all I want is for each of us to ask why? Where does my personal discomfort with wearing a kippah come from, how does it mesh with my beliefs and identity, and what do I do with that?

The success of the daughters of Tzelophechad comes not with their specific victory of gaining some land; rather, it comes with the notion that if women, or really, any class of people, prove that they, too, should be counted among the privileged beloved of God, God will hear and respect their case. At Agudath Achim, we are no less authentically Jewish by counting women in a minyan. We are reading and respecting our text no less closely by teaching our daughters the same Torah as our sons. By creating a community that is purposefully egalitarian, we are simply confirming women as part of the definition of who is a Jew. We are reflecting God’s mercy on all human beings through our community structure and action, expecting more of all of our community members because of our respect for them. When we show our ideals of equal responsibility for and respect of the women in our community, we make this community a catalyst for more equal recognition of all of God’s creation in the world outside these walls. Shabbat Shalom.

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784