Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Daughters of Zelophehad as a Model for Halachic Change

The story of the daugthers of Zelophehad (Num. 27:1-11) is often looked to as a prototype of Jewish feminism. A group of women approach Moses, the leader of the entire Israelite nation, and demand, before all the members of the Israelite hierarchy, that they be granted a right previously restricted to men: the right to inherit land.

A close reading of the story (or Hirhurim), however, reveals that this interpretation has serious flaws. The daughters of Zelophehad argue not on their own behalf, but on behalf of their deceased father, who, they say, has a right "live on" by keeping his allotment of land within the family, a right that the current system would deny him because of his lack of sons. The ruling issued at the end of the narrative addresses precisely this complaint, and not the inequality of the sexes: the daugthers will inherit their father's land, but only for the purpose of ultimately passing it on to their sons. Moreover, in order to ensure that the patriarchal system of land-tenure is maintained, the daughters of Zelophehad (and presumably any women to whom the ruling applies) are required to marry within their father's tribe.

That said, it seems to me that the story can still provide a model for feminist change within halacha, as well as for any change that seeks to expand the rights of various individuals and groups within the Jewish community.

In this regard, the following features of the story are noteworthy:

1. Change is initiated by laypeople (in this case, people from a particularly low stratum of society). These people observe that the legal system, as it stands, does not do justice to certain members of the community.

2. The laypeople do not request justice; they demand it.

3. That said, they do so within the communal framework, by bringing their complaint to the religious authorities (in this case, Moses and God).

4. The religous authorities take their complaint seriously and address it. They do not dismiss those making the complaint because of their lack of status, or because of their tone, or because the complaint is based on the fundamental value of justice rather than the particulars of Israelite law.

5. The result is a partnership between bold laypeople and bold leaders, both willing to modify the legal system when it is in the interest of justice to do so.

Of course, there is one glaring difference between the situation in the parsha and the situation facing Jewish communities today. God very seldom speaks directly to our rabbis and tells them exactly what to do. Instead, we try to preserve the integrity of halacha by working within a textual tradition, which seems to say something slightly different to each individual who confronts it. But here again, I think the idea of partnership is key. We can't just wait for the texts to tell us what to do or for rabbis to tell us what to do. We have to figure out for ourselves what isn't right with the status quo and then try to work together, with our leaders and with our halachic tradition, to change it for the better.


Dovid said...

It is totaly beyond my understanding why you call this blog "apikorsus". It is a great blog, and is, seemingly, reverent of Jewish tradition and law. So why the title?

Etan said...

See and I had the opposite question: "Occasionally heretical musings....?" The stuff in this blog is almost always heretical! Right, Meredith? :)

elf said...

I guess if I wait around long enough, questions are answered for me. Here are my two cents:

Since Judaism has no central religious authority (as much as some rabbis seem to think they're it), heresy is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Of course, I call my blog "apikorsus" as a joke, but it's a joke that appeals to me because the religious tradition in which I was raised largely considers my views on Torah and Judaism heretical. (See, for example, the post on parshat Shelach.)

Anyway, Dovid, thank you for the compliment.

Etan said...

Hey, by the way, did you know that the word apikorsus comes from Epicurus, the Ancient Greek philosopher who believed that although the gods exist, they have no connection to our lives?

elf said...

The irony did occur to me.