Rabbinic readings of the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad carry a number of revelations so radical that the modern Jewish ear, attuned to artificial denominational lines and boundaries, will find them shocking, discordant. So please, open your ears and open your heart.
There is a similar story to our own, with similar language, in Bamidbar chapter 9, about the people who petition for Pesach Sheni. There too, a group of people who feel excluded by the halacha come to Moshe with the question: “why should we be any less?” Moshe hears their claim, and validates it with a humble acknowledgment that he must turn to God for a new revelation in order to respond to it. God’s response demonstrates that he was just waiting for someone to ask in order to introduce halachot that were even more far-reaching and inclusive than were asked for.
In our story, the message emphasized by Rashi is that not only does God want people to ask, he needs them to. You should probably be sitting down when you read this next part…
“Yes! The daughters of Tzelafchad speak appropriately! Surely give them a portion,” says the verse, and Rashi amplifies. “Thus is it written before me above, teaching that their eyes saw what Moshe’s eyes did not see.” The halacha of inheritance as it had been presented up until that point was lacking! In the rabbinic imagination, the daughters of Tzelafchad needed to burst into the beit midrash and make their demand in order for the “Torah-true” approach to be revealed. Without their intervention, there would have been a dissonance between the divine law above and its application in the world below.
Did you fall off your chair? Has Rashi gone mad? Would Moshe Gafni and David Azoulay eat his hashgacha?
Perhaps he was infected by the proto-feminist ideas of his infamous daughters. We turn to an even more radical rabbinic text, from the Tannaitic period.
What motivated Tzelafchad’s daughters to make this claim? A straight, minimalist reading of the text yields no true feminist motivations, and perhaps just the opposite (as Rav Elhanan Samet argues here). What moves them is their desire that the patriarchal name of the family not be diminished, not any criticism of the lack of egalitarianism in Jewish law. This plain reading makes the following reading of the Sifrei all the more astounding. Again- are you sitting?
“When the daughters of Tzelafchad heard that the land was being divided among the tribes and not the women, they gathered together to advise. They said: the mercy of flesh and blood are not like the mercy of God! Flesh and blood have more mercy on men, but God is not like this, rather, on men and women, he has mercy on all…”
Either the feminists succeeded in going back in time and sneaking in their own reading into Rabbi Yishmael’s 2nd century study hall…or we need to rethink common (mis)conceptions about rabbinic thinking. According to the Sifrei, their motivation is precisely the inequality which Tzelafchad’s daughters experience Torah law embodying. They refuse to accept this inequality as the work of a merciful God- it must be the result of the human understanding of God’s law.
Of course, Moshe “had it easy”. He could turn to God to know whether to confirm or deny the feminist claim. Then again, if modern rabbinic leadership had Moshe’s ability to listen and acknowledge these claims, and to humbly admit ignorance, rather than resorting to defensiveness and ascribing to them all sorts of sordid motivations, we might be in a very different place even without recourse to a Divine response.
Tzelafchad’s daughters do not represent all Jewish women. It’s just one rabble-rousing family. The strength of their claim is not in their popular support, but in their theological justification, and this claim, still carried by a small minority of Jewish women, is alive and kicking today. We cannot ignore it. And so, in the absence of direct Divine response, what do we have to guide us if not the direction offered by the Torah’s example, as understood by our sages?
Hint: at the end of this chapter, Moshe learns his lesson from Tzelafchad’s daughters and directly petitions God for change, and the institution of semicha is born.
This is a uniquely auspicious time, when the 929 project aligns with the weekly Torah portion (and with current events, as usual). This blog aspires to be a daily, short English reflection on the 929 chapter of the day (today’s is longer in honor of the Parsha). I’d love to hear your (topical, respectfully delivered) thoughts and comments. Don’t know what 929 is? It’s about time you learned- it’s a wonderful project of the Jewish people to learn one chapter of Tanach a day, and it’s accompanied by a buzz of intellectual and cultural activity. Learn more at 929.org.il.