This week we will be reading from Parashat Pinchas. One of the challenges with reading any of our ancient texts is that we often want them to reflect our contemporary values. For example, we live in a society that, for the most part, is striving to become more egalitarian. Therefore, when we look to our tradition we hope to find stories and teachings to ground ourselves in reflection of these same values.
By this measure, the Torah does not live up to our expectations. Though truth be told, it cannot live up to our expectations. It was composed and redacted in a time and place far different from our contemporary reality.
All that being said, the Torah, nonetheless, is quite revolutionary. Though not egalitarian, it does give us insight into how our ancient tradition viewed and valued women.
This week we find the stories of Mahlah, Noa, Hoglad, Milcah, and Tirzah — often referred to as the daughters of Zelophechad. They approached Moses because their father died in the wilderness leaving behind no sons to inherit their father’s holding. They were also concerned that their father’s name would be lost in the subsequent generation.
After consulting with God, Moses decreed that, “if a man dies without a son, you (the Israelites) shall transfer his property to his daughter…” (Num. 27:8). It then goes into greater details about the laws of inheritance.
Now we wish the text provided for the daughters whether or not there were sons. But, it was quite revolutionary for its time. Subsequent rabbis then made for allowances for daughters so that by the 16th century, fathers were allowed to give half of their sons’ share in their estate to their daughters (Shulchan Aruch H.M. 281:7).
In reading Parashat Pinchas, we find the Torah was already beginning to plant the seeds for a more egalitarian approach to Jewish living. We still have a long way to go in the Jewish world, and in our greater society especially with regards to issues of equality. But it is nice to know that our efforts are backed up by our tradition, even if our tradition does not go as far as we would like. But at least it is a step in the right direction.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff