There is quite a surprise in our parashat hashavua, called Pinkhas. Our ancient Israelite religious narrative presents us with what we presume to be a Patriarchal framework for understanding our lives. Certainly, the caricatures of traditional Judaism (and, sadly, often the reality) diminishes and even calumniates the strengths and characteristics of the feminine. This has led to the political and social oppression of women in Jewish culture.
But how much of the ancient narrative is actually Patriarchal, and to what extent has it been taught through a lens which emphasizes the Patriarchal, while ignoring the evidence of strong women, and the presence of much feminine imagery? Books such as Merlin Stone’s When God Was A Woman or Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess trace a pre-Patriarchal world in which spirituality was equally male, female, and included other genders as well.
But what of the Torah? This is where parashat Pinkhas comes to surprise us. The Israelites have been journeying toward the Promised Land for nigh unto forty years at this point. To recap in a nutshell: our ancestors are led out of Egypt, brought to Mt Sinai, entered into a Covenant, given laws by which to frame their lives and thrive as free people, and are now pretty much settled into a routine. Pitch camp, feed the sheep, settle whatever differences are currently causing social upset, and then, at a propitious moment, strike camp and travel onward.
Then something happens that hasn’t been foreseen by the Giver of the Halakha, the path we are following. A man named Tzelafkhad dies. He had five daughters, no sons. And the rules for inheritance as the Israelites have them do not allow for that situation, for they specify that when a man dies, his son shall inherit him. Tzelafkhad’s daughters go to Moshe and ask the obvious question: if there is no son, shall not the daughter inherit?
A wonderful thing happens: Moshe indicates that he does not know, and rather than try to work out the correct halakha on his own, he asks the women to wait while he goes to ask G*d. And then another wonderful thing happens: G*d tells Moshe that the women are right; they should inherit. And so the law stands to this day. Jewish law, challenged, expanded and changed by women. This is not a singular narrative; it beckons us to examine our inherited texts ourselves, rather than let another’s lens tell us what we see.
There is nothing particularly misogynistic about the story of Tzelakhad’s daughters, although the narrative, by assuming that fathers will have sons, is clearly Patriarchally biased. But there is hope for a bias, especially when one who carries it is willing to be enlightened, expanded, and changed through lived experience and learning – and, most of all, willing to hear questions and admit ignorance, just as Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher, did.
This week, our parashah acknowledges the strengths and gifts of the feminine side of life, even as Jewish mystics teach the essence of G*d as equally feminine and masculine – as are we ourselves. This week, the United States sees a woman nominated for President by a major political party and hails this new thing. But we know that women as well as men have always been building human life, discerning the path, and summoning the future. It is only a matter of seeing, and lifting up the good that we see beyond the cultural expectations that we are supposed to have.