I was asked a few weeks ago to prepare a dvar Torah (short commentary) on the parasha (weekly Torah portion) for this week. After a quick review of parasha Pinchas (Numbers 25:10 – 30:1), as an ardent feminist I couldn’t say no. (Here is a great commentary.)
Zelophehad’s daughters appeal to receive an inheritance in the absence of male heirs. The daughters appeal to preserve their father’s name in the absence of male heirs. Moses consults with G-d and the daughters are allowed to inherit the land. That’s not the end of the story.
A few sentences later members of the Tribe of Menashe express concern that if these land-holding women marry out of the tribe then the landholdings of the tribe will be decreased. The tribe will become less powerful. Moses again consults with G-d and again a decision is handed down – the women are allowed to inherit but must marry within their tribe in order to keep the property within the Tribe of Menashe. One step forward, two steps back.
It’s true that “equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It’s not pie”. However, full equality requires some of those white men to give up their positions of power, give up their power to let others lead. It is not enough to look backwards and say that because you look like past leadership that makes you qualified to lead. It is not enough to look backwards and say that if we don’t see leaders like you, you are unfit to lead. And yet that’s the world we are continuing to live in because giving up power is hard.
Rights for women, rights for minorities and people of color, are all critical subjects we must address, and address properly. Here in Israel, the Ethiopian community is demanding to be seen and have the institutional discrimination they have suffered recognized and ended. We stand on the cusp of a second election where the majority of the candidates are Ashkenazi, men, quite often former Generals, because the recent batch we elected couldn’t find a way to work together and build a government for all the people in Israel. Women and people of color remain noticeably absent. And that’s not even addressing religious issues surrounding gender discrimination.
In America, the current government is seeking to drive further the wedge between those in power (white, Christian men) and well, everyone else. The discourse has become toxic and venomous. Border walls, detention centers, calls to send American citizens back to their country of origin are mind-boggling. The comparisons daily in the news and on my FB feed remind us of the dark history in the US surrounding treatment of anyone not white, male and Christian. Using division as a political tool, a political weapon, is clearly effective, and also severely damaging. (And there is a fabulous new book out if you want to understand this phenomena and the damage it is doing more deeply – disclosure, I had the pleasure of being in a seminar recently with the author.) Giving credence to any of these “others” in the US comes at the expense of the power held by the white, Christian men.
A black, female, university professor shared her experiences developing and teaching a course on whiteness and her engagement with the white world in which she moves in the NYTimes Magazine. A white, male friend shared with her his experience “absorbing the problems of the world” in response to his rejection from a potential job. She elaborates that he felt “he was being punished for the sins of his forefathers”. Why yes, he might be. And he needs to understand that those forefathers were the ones who created the imbalance that we are facing today; the inequality that is causing us to rise up and demand equality. A shift to true equality does mean that those were were in positions of privilege are now have to share and may lose their privilege. That’s not where anyone wants to be.
And then, right here in my town, Yokneam Illit, a heavily publicized event this Friday morning in the local nature park in conjunction with the Jewish National Fund (JNF) with 15 performers were on the schedule – only men! What kind of message are we receiving from the leadership of our communities and organizations with such programs? How can programs like this build any sense of connection or community?
Zelophehad’s daughters were given equality with one hand and then had it taken back partially with another, for the sake of the men. Yes, the men of the Tribe of Menashe might have lost some of their property (read: power) were they to let the women marry out of the tribe. They could have found a way to fully enfranchise women into the tribe such that gender wasn’t a defining characteristic of power in the tribe. That would have required the men of the tribe to cede some power to ensure full equality for all.
This is a critical moment in the Torah for women’s rights. Except for the caveat thrown in at the end that brings it all crumbling down. Power is intoxicating for those who have it. When you are in a place of power sharing it feels like giving it up. In fact, when we share power and equality with all we are all stronger.