The Wise Daughters of Zelophehad and the Evolving Role of Jewish Women
Those of you who watch the news from Israel- when it doesn’t involve Palestinians, Hamas and so forth- may have heard of an incident in the town of Beth Shemesh, located just at the beginning of the foothills of Jerusalem. It was a typical Israeli town, mostly devoted to agriculture, but as the price of housing has increased in Jerusalem, it has become a refuge for those seeking affordable housing. That, however, has included a large influx of the Charedim, the ultra- Orthodox.
One of the results has been intrusion of the highly restrictive and segregated male-female lifestyle of the Haredi. We already have, in the Charedi world, women at the back of the bus, or even “separate but equal buses.” The straw that broke the camel’s back for the non-Charedi residents, even for the main-stream Orthodox, was a sign:” Women must go to the other side of the street!”
I am hard pressed to find, in Jewish sources, any precedent for such a draconian edict. It is not a symptom of Orthodoxy, but a symptom of the threat this insular population feels from the changes occurring in the status of women, even in their circles. Even in these ultra- Orthodox, hide –bound circles, women are the ones bringing home the kosher-bacon and being exposed to the outside world. It is a reactionary offense as defense.
The Charedi community has also used its political clout to take over what was originally an official Israeli Rabbinate, for example, that was Zionist and outward looking. Thus, the Israeli Rabbinate recently pushed the great innovative Rabbi Riskin from his position because he had the nerve to offer classes for women in higher Rabbinic studies. As I said, it’s offense as a form of defense.
Moses, apparently, did not have the problems they have. In our Torah portion, it is the women, the daughters of Zelophehad, who force Moses to accept their reasoned opinion on inheritance. Even the Torah notes that they did not stay in the back of the bus:”And they stood before Moses and before Eleazar the priest and before the princes and the entire congregation.” Right up front, in the assembly, in a traditionally male-only location. ( vs 2)
The Talmud takes the text of our Torah portion even further:
“It was taught: The daughters of Zelophehad were wise women, they were scholars, and they were virtuous.
They were wise, since they spoke at an opportune moment . . . just as Moses was teaching the laws of inheritance for a man who had died before having fathered children.
They were scholars, for they said: 'If he had a son we would not have spoken'. . . 'Even if a son of his had a daughter, we would not have spoken'
They were virtuous, since they were married to such men only as were worthy of them. (from Baba Batra 119a)
Moses had no problem with these women asserting themselves.
It is clear, with all the changes in the world, that there is no way that woman can be relegated to the back of the bus. This change has been across the board of the Jewish world, including the main-stream Orthodox community as well.
In my last year at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I studied Talmud under the leading light of the movement, Professor Saul Lieberman. In that class were two women. Now, we are going back 40 years ago, I date myself. One was Judith Hauptman, who was working on her doctorate in Rabbinic studies and had a great mastery of Jewish law, but who could never, as far as her Talmud professor, the official Rabbi of the Seminary, Saul Lieberman could determine, be ordained as a Rabbi, for all her knowledge. She since when on to become a Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics and only many years later was ordained as Rabbi .
The other woman student came to class for only a few sessions, and as far as we knew, was merely sitting in out of curiosity. Later on, I was informed that, unknown to the professor, she was at the time studying privately with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a maverick Orthodox Rabbi, who had plans to make her the first Orthodox woman Rabbi. As far as I know, it fell through, perhaps because, in the end, Rabbi Greenberg felt at the time that there was too great an opposition in his circles to such an act.
That was also the time that the idea of counting women for a minyan began to make headway.
One day in 1973, the New York Times placed on its front page the news that the Rabbinical Assembly law committee voted by a majority ruling to permit women to be counted at a minyan. Imagine, it made front page news! Of course, it took a long time after that for it be widely accepted; the chapel service here began counting women for the minyan only a few years ago.
In that same year, the Reform movement Hebrew Union College ordained its first woman Rabbi, and since then the new Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia began to ordain women as well. It took the Conservative movement yet another 10 years to get around to it. It was not an easy path and led to serious fracturing of the movement.
As I said, the main-stream Orthdoox community is not immune to was is going on. It is the path that is being taken, even today, in some Orthodox circles, with the ordination of women as “Maharat,” a Hebrew acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, or “Leader of Jewish Law, Spirituality, and Torah”( in the Hebrew feminine). They are also granted an ordination of
“ Toreh- Toreh”, the feminine form for the formal ordination of “ Yoreh -Yoreh”, the authority to made halakhic decisions. B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles has been among the first Orthodox congregations to bring on a candidate for “ Maharat” ordination to serve as intern to the senior rabbi.
This dramatic shift in the position of women in modern Jewish life, not just in Rabbinics, but in all aspects of life, across the board, is part of the reason that elements in the Charedi community literally want to return women to the back of the bus.
Yet there is historic precedent for this as well.
In truth, there have always been women who have functioned as authorities of Jewish law, and who had the right, by virtue of their great knowledge and understanding, to tell the judges and Rabbis of their day what the law is to be. The prophetess Huldah instructed the king and priest about the authenticity of a Torah document that had been found, neglected, in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The classic example of the early Rabbinic period was Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir, the outstanding Rabbi of his day, who formulated laws for him and his colleagues. In every generation there were women who stood above the cloud of ignorance in which the average Jewish woman was kept and gained recognition from the male world for their erudition.
Even in more recent times, among the Chasidim, there have
been women who have served as leaders of Chasidic communities-- Sarah the daughter of R. Joshua Heschel Teomim, Malkele of Trisk and the best known, Hannah Rachel . Der Ludomirer Moyd, the Maiden of Ludomir, over a century and a half ago , wore tallit and tefilin, recited kaddish after her father and preached to her followers.
Yes, there are specific laws that place a limit on a woman’s position.
Yet the grounds for these laws were based on social norms of the day, social norms that ceased to exist already for a century and more. Exceptions were made, way back when, even while these norms stood. Tempus mutandis, times change, and Halakhah has always recognized the need to deal with the times.
Clearly, today, we are dealing, not just with issues of women as Rabbis, but with issues of gender and marital relations as well
The Conservative movement is just that:conservative with a small “c”. Conservative does not mean to stop the clock. It means to conserve the best and most valuable and to move slowly in order to do so. It does not mean to stop the clock.
Change is not an exception to Judaism; the main tradition we have is that of changing. That is why one of the great classics of the movement is titled Tradition and Change. Note the word” and”, not “or”. Two opposites—but the brilliance of Jewish thought has always been to hold on to two opposites, recognize that fact, and reconcile the opposites.
I go back to our wise women, the daughters of Zelophehad. This is a comment from the Sifra, one of the foundation works of Jewish law 1900 years ago. It examines our account of daughters of Zelophehad, a man who had no male heirs. The daughters realized that they would lose their share and came to Moses for a solution, which he received directly from God. The daughters comment, "The compassion of man extends to men more than to women; not so is the compassion of God; His compassion extends equally to men and women, as it is written, "The Lord is good to all, and his mercies are over all his works.”
( Ps 145).