As the Women's World Cup is broadcast around the world to massive audiences; as the 2020 Presidential election begins to elevate the voices of no fewer than six female candidates; and as the #MeToo movement continues reshape the nature of America's relationship between the two sexes, the Torah also, ever-so-briefly, reflects on women as well. The midsummer parsha of Pinchas will falls this year in late July, containing within in the story of the daughters of Zelophehad. As you likely know, Zelophehad dies without sons, and so his brothers are designated by the Torah to be the heirs. His daughters are to get nothing.
It is an injustice towards women, and not the only one we see in Torah. Biblical society 3,000 years ago was was patriarchal and patronizing. Women were a lower category of citizen, with fewer rights and protections. With a few notable exceptions, women did not serve as familial decision makers, and women were not in roles of leadership.
The daughters of Zelophehad appeal to Moses regarding their plight. When they point out that the situation is unjust, Moses agrees. The law is changed.
And so law and society would continue to change for women, with glacial slowness, for the next 3,000 years. Women today have jobs; women can vote; women are equal to men before the law. In Judaism, women can read from the Torah and put on tefillin and become rabbis.
But women are still not equal to men, and our society still has a long way to go to get there. The US Women's National team is suing US Soccer to be paid equal to the men. Fully 242 years into America's history and we still have never had a woman president. And it took decades of crass jokes about 'casting couches' and 'old boys clubs' and 'locker room talk' before our nation finally woke up to the truth - that lewd talk and sexual assault in the workplace were commonplace, and disgusting, and that it was long past time for such garbage behavior should have ended.
Many workplaces and professions are still unequal and uncomfortable for women. Men still dominate the leadership of corporate America and academia and the rabbinate. In 2019, a women still only earns $0.79 to every dollar that a man earns.
We have a long way to go. The fight is not over. The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is to be read, then, each and every year, as a call to action to change the things that must be fixed. Someday it will be a quaint story of olden days when things were unequal. Until that day, though, we must always be vigilant and willing to fix the broken systems or inequity, as Moses would have wanted us to.
- Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is the spiritual leader of Brith Sholom Jewish Center in Erie, PA. These are a collection of thoughts and writings since he joined the community in Erie. For more of his past writings, click here.