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Parashat Pinchas: An Enduring Act of Feminine Courage

Dr. Peri Sinclair
| 27/06/2021

I think a question many of us struggle with when reading Torah is how is it that women didn’t protest the social order in ancient times?  Our parasha offers a story which is relevant to this question. Let’s start at the top.

Pinchas, whom the parasha is named for, is actually the “hero” of last week’s Torah portion. Our parasha begins with the tail end of that story.  Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon Ha’Cohen.  Pinchas was a religious zealot.  He brutally put an end to the plague inflicted on the Israelites for straying, committing adultery and intermarrying with Moabite and Midianite women.

I’ll openly admit that this extreme act is a difficult episode for me to relate to as a woman living in Israel in the 21st century, especially given the eternal blessing Pinchas receives from God at the beginning of our parasha, and even more so due to the approval rates his actions seem to get to this day.

Luckily for me, the parasha quickly moves to count B’nei Israel by tribe, giving mention to the main families in each of the tribes. When the counting reaches the tribe of Menashe, as it lists Menashe’s sons, we are unexpectedly introduced to the five daughters of Tzlofechad: Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. They are mentioned by name, nonchalantly, like it is totally natural to have five women mentioned by name as part of the Israelite count!

Raising a voice to demand change

And if that isn’t surprising enough, once the count is done, we encounter the unique story of these five women. This is a story which is easier to relate to. A group of people, five women, members of what is essentially an oppressed group within society comes forward, approaches Moshe and raises its voice, demanding to alter the social order.

I’ll admit, however, that at 12 years old I totally overlooked this element in the parasha, something that puzzles and even embarrasses me somewhat today. This is a big deal!

First off, we are speaking of five women who are minor characters in the biblical narrative. This isn’t Miriam speaking or someone of her caliber.

Secondly, they are mentioned by name, not referred to by their relationship to a man, like bat Yiftach, Yiftach’s daughter,  Eshet Potifar, Potifar’s wife or bat Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s daughter. They are named: Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. Not once, but twice!

Thirdly, these five women totally break protocol and speak directly with Moshe, no questions asked, even though just a couple of weeks ago, when we read parashat B’ha’alotcha, we were introduced to a very organized judicial structure. They ignore that and go right to the top.

You can imagine the scene: Moshe holding court, under a tree or in a big tent, surrounded by men. There is much hustle and bustle. Then these five women come forward, maybe they have to push their way through and get his attention. The court falls silent as they speak.  Or maybe someone tries to silence them? Or mansplain? Or try to push them out?

A challenge to the laws of inheritance

Finally, what they have to say seems to be in protest of the accepted social order. They challenge the law of the land which dictates that property which belonged to a man who has no sons to inherit him, is transferred to the nearest male relative.

The Hebew text is very powerful – למה יגרע שם אבינו – why shall our father’s name be subtracted for his family because he has no son? They demand the opportunity to carry on their father’s name as women. This might be translated today to a woman choosing to keep her maiden name.

The root of יגרע – ג.ר.ע – means to subtract and appears in another biblical story we read just a few weeks ago in parashat B’ha’alotcha. There, a group of people who were forbidden to join in the Passover rituals came to Moshe protesting the situation, saying – למה נגרע – why shall we be excluded or subtracted from the public ritual?

Each of these stories poses a challenge to the law, a new halachic question. There are no ready-made answers and Moshe takes them both to God. In both cases, God’s response is a chidush – a new ruling. In our story God rationalizes the womens’ request as fair.  The text reads: כן בנות צלפחד דוברות – what they say is just – and the law changes so that in lieu of sons, daughters can inherit land under certain restrictions.

The law changes as a result of b’not Tzlofechad’s activism, because they had the courage to call out injustice.

Traditional commentary couldn’t ignore this. Some commentators suggest that Moshe simply forgot the halacha which he had received at Sinai. Others say that what he received at Sinai were the general rules whereas the details were revealed as needed.

The Talmud, in Baba Batra, goes out of its way to tell us how wise and righteous these five women were and how they deserved that the halacha be introduced in their name.

We could argue whether what Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah accomplished was an act of feminism. At the end of the day their request wasn’t to alter the patriarchy but to ensure their father’s name was succeeded, maybe not really something for us to get excited about.

According to biblical tradition and archeological findings we know that at least three of the five women were later mentioned as having political importance in the kingdom of Israel. The first capital city of the Kingdom of Israel before the city of Shomron/Semaria was a place called Tirza (1 Kings 16:24). Hogla and Noa’s names were both discovered on clay artifacts at an  archeological dig in the ancient ruins of Sebastia, not far from  Semaria, and most likely document districts in the land belonging to the tribe of Menashe.

Evolving Jewish law

So what’s the take away from this vignette?

This story shines a light on women who sought equality and innovation and possibly obtain some form of leadership in biblical times. Because of the nature of the mid-eastern society at that time, we don’t have many similar events. Even the biblical narrative, whether you believe it was written by men or all the more so, if you choose to believe it was all from God – accepts the challenge they posed and changes to accommodate them. We see that even then Jewish law evolved to meet the changing needs of society.

My second take away is to view ourselves, our choices of how to live and celebrate our traditions, how we adapt, reimagine and innovate within Judaism are all part of an organic evolution that is at the core of our tradition.  As long as we see ourselves as part of a larger global community, and our actions as ways of sustaining Judaism and ensuring its continuity, our Judaism connects us not only with our history and past but also with communities around the world moving forward and we should picture ourselves as part of this vibrant international people.

I began this video asking how is it that people didn’t protest the social order in ancient times.  In many ways that’s not a fair question. It is anachronistic and imposes our politics on ancient times. The story of the daughters of Tzlofechad suggests that social change occurred even during biblical times and women and men did not always accept the law as received.

I don’t think we can say that they were feminists, but stories like this which highlight change and innovation empower me as a woman, as a mother and as a Jew who knows that my Judaism enriches my life, gives it meaning and depth and has a place in this day and age because it is continuously evolving to fit our times.

Shavua Tov from Schechter.

Dr. Peri Sinclair is The Susan and Scott Shay TALI Director General.  She received her doctorate in Midrash from the Jewish Theological Seminary and her MA in Jewish Education from JTS’s Davidson School of Education​. Peri is a graduate of the T​ALI​ School in Hod Hasharon and a proud alumn​a​ of NOAM (the Masorti Movement’s yo​uth​ movement).  ​She​ ​has ​spent 15 summers ​in senior staff positions at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.  She is married to Dr. Alex Sinclair and together they are raising three inquisitive kids in Modi’in.

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