Daughters of Zelophehad came before feminism
Pinchas, Numbers 25:10-30:1
No need for coming that “long way baby,” G-d already got you there a long time ago.
In recent times, more specifically the late 19th to the mid 20th century, women have struggled for equal common ground. And not necessarily with men, but in actuality, it has been more of a struggle to attain status as a whole for females.
As a man, I certainly am not going to share a whole concept of how treatment of woman, combined with a stereotyped evaluation of their roles in many areas of society, has caused women to be labeled as inferior. I will keep it rather simple and reference a place where there can be no worries of dispute of status involving any group or individual — the Torah.
Also, I will gladly site this idea from the highest authority on any matter, in a case involving rights for a few “ladies.” That authority would be none other than the Holy One, blessed be He — G-d.
In this week’s portion, Pinchas, the very beginning of Chapter 27 tells of five women who are daughters of a man named Zelophehad. He had passed away in the desert following the attempted revolt of Korach against Moses. Zelophehad had no sons.
Thus, Zelophehad’s daughters made their case to Moshe in front of the entire assembly of Israel. They asked for the inheritance due from their father, on par with any of the sons of any of the tribes.
There is another concept to be brought out in this case beyond the ruling. Moses was stumped. He turned to G-d for the correct ruling, which was absolutely in favor of the request of all five of Zelophehad’s daughters.
This additional concept proves a simple, but often misinterpreted one, and at times a debated issue in some venues of religious belief. No matter how high G-d elevates a human being in spiritual leadership, they are never equal, nor will they ever be, to G-d almighty.
In this case, when you look at the word mishpawton the third word from the end of verse 5, the final nun in that word is written in a special way. This usually means that a special lesson is to be learned from such a letter or word. In this instance, Rabbaynu Berachah states that 50 gates of understanding were created by G-d in this world, and Moshe knew all but one of them. The one gate of understanding he lacked prevented him from ruling on his own in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters, and he needed to inquire of G-d. It is another example of G-d making it clear to us that, while we should indeed love, cherish and follow the rulings of our rabbis, that it should be done with the understanding that even the greatest leading human being of all time, Moshe Rabbaynu, Moses our great teacher, is not at all comparable to G-d.
The ruling by G-d certainly makes a few things clear involving women and Judaism, such as inheritance. If you examine the case carefully, Zelophehad’s daughters by no means come across as strong advocates for woman’s lib. There is actually no certain display of their stance, other than what is rightfully theirs to claim. Therefore, I will stop short of producing the case as any sort of ryah, a talmudic term for proof of reference on matters, as to what women’s roles in the minyan and in Judaism should be in today’s world.
Perhaps one day in the future there will be another Moshe appointed by G-d among us, and perhaps once again G-d will have to be called in for that ruling as well.
(This column is a service of Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)