153/929 Putting Public Policy in Proper Proportion. Bamidbar 36 (and last!)

“It’s all well and good that you’re sympathetic to feminist complaints of inequality, Moshe. After all, who doesn’t believe in fundamental equality and justice? But what about the policy implications? What will this do to the community?”

The complaints of the children of Gilad neatly, if anachronistically, match up with a common objection to feminist innovations. Opponents will grant the fundamental equality of the sexes (and this itself is a tremendous accomplishment of the feminist movement), and may even admit that the halacha can change in response to changing circumstances (an even greater accomplishment, heard of late from a spokesperson of American charedi Jewry as if it was obvious). But, they will argue, perhaps paraphrasing Jewish feminist Blu Greenberg, just because there is a halachic way, doesn’t mean there ought to be a rabbinic will, and this because of the social consequences. Should these be ignored?

Moshe’s response to this claim is highly instructive. While respecting and providing a response to the men’s concerns, he also defines (and limits) the impact and weight they need to be given.

Firstly, he establishes that the demands of justice must come first, and only afterward is social policy considered. Although it seems that the law limiting marriage in these cases within the tribe was already given along with the original innovation of the inheritance of daughters, Moshe didn’t adulterate the original ruling with its technical limitations. For that, he waited for the issue to actually be raised, and only then did he offer the (already prepared) response.

Second, we learn that responding to policy concerns can’t be allowed to undermine the fundamental response to a problem of inequality. A simpler solution to the problem suggests itself. Why weren’t the daughters of Tzelafchad told that, should they choose to marry outside the tribe, they must forfeit their father’s portion, and accept their husband’s portion as their own? Isn’t that what other women did?

In fact, the sisters may have been happy to accept this alternative. If their original request had been motivated by their intense love of the land of Israel, as the Midrash suggests, it must have been quite disappointing that the men of their tribe decided to waive their portion inside the land, and conquer the land of Gilad, east of the Jordan.

Perhaps their willingness to accept the limitation imposed on them comes from the feeling that, even when policy concerns demand consideration (and they do), their fundamental call for justice and change is assigned greatest value.

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.
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