The Daughters of Zelophead

Now there is a fun word to say with an English pronunciation — “Zelophead”.

I haven’t been blogging lately because I haven’t been studying the parshah now for a few weeks.  You could say that I’ve been slacking, but really it’s just prioritizing — focusing on getting enough sleep eating real food and working out and my career have simply taken precedence.  And I think that’s okay.  Given that my work involves sitting in front of a computer and working on blogs and websites, I’m increasingly less interested in doing so as a hobby.  Instead, I’ve been practicing internalization of knowledge rather than as much analysis, and that’s pretty important too.

But I digress.  I reached a milestone this past Shabbat without giving it much thought until afterwards.  I pulled out a dvar Torah from my left ear (see, my language is getting cleaner too) at a moment’s notice.  Feeling a bit defensive for womankind that the guests at lunch who were studying in seminary shirked from the request of sharing a dvar Torah (in my experience this happens every time women are asked), I came up with something.  It was nothing revolutionary, but most divrei Torah hardly are — most fancy ones just take a while to get to the point or rip off of someone else.

I discussed something that I had learned during the week in my study of Sefer Yehoshua, the book of Joshua, which I’m just about done with.  The second half of the book is on one hand quite boring — a list of all the cities and areas given to each of the twelve tribes.  But there is a little bit of narrative, and the last section I learned retells (from Bamidbar/Numbers) an episode about the daughters of Zelophead (“Tzlofchad” to say it more precisely):

But Zelophad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Menashe, had no sons, but daughters; and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, and Noa, Hoglah, Milchah, and Tirzah.

And they came near before Eleazar the priest, and before Joshua the son of Nun, and before the princes, saying, “The Lord commanded Moses to give us an inheritance among our brothers.”  According to the commandment of the Lord, he gave them an inheritance among the brothers of their father.

(Chapter 17: 3-4)

The daughters of Zelophead address the leadership about the law and the inheritance due to them.

Too often today I see a dependency of women on men to know the halacha, the Jewish law for them.  “I’ll ask my husband” is the answer I get 9 times out of 10 that I ask a woman a question about halacha outside of the communities I prefer to situate myself in. It’s traditionally more of a man’s role to be the one to dedicate a lot of time to Torah study, and technically, only men are actually commanded to do so, but to delegate like that seems unfortunate and perhaps even cause violation of halacha.  It’s not the fact that the onus for the study falls on men that bothers me, but rather the attitude that only men would be able to understand it.

How can you know what question to ask if you are not yourself knowledgeable?  While big decisions can and should be left up to the rabbinic authorities, we see in this episode in Yehoshua that even the biggest leader of the day can overlook things without knowledgeable community members – men as well as women.

In an age when women become doctors, lawyers, and politicians, they should similarly use their intellectual capabilities for Torah study.  And in a time when it’s not just young men go to yeshiva as part of their Jewish education but women go to seminary, they should be encouraged to share what they have learned, too.  Men spend most of their time studying Gemara, which is pretty hard to sum up and pull into the parshah anyhow.

On a related note, a friend just shared a recent article from the New York Jewish Week on the ordination of female rabbis, and Orthodoxy’s ability to change with the times.

In citing a Midrash on the initial appearance of the episode of the daughters of Zelophead in Bamidar/Numbers 27, the author, Rabbi Shai Held, concludes: “Zelophead’s daughters stated clearly and confidently that one should not necessarily conflate prevailing social arrangements with the eternal, immutable will of God, for to do so is to underestimate God’s love and mercy, which extends to women as well to men. How does God respond? “Yes, Zelophead’s daughters are right” (Numbers 27:7). Sometimes those who seek to redress injustice are more in line with God’s will than those who seek to maintain the status quo. It is thus not despite of Torah but because of it that one of the crucial mandates of the hour is to create more opportunities and contexts for women’s voices to be heard in Jewish life.”

I am sometimes made to feel that my views make me a raging feminist in the world of Orthodox Judaism.  I say I’m just using the brain Gd gave me.  I can bake a cake too, I promise.

5 Responses to “The Daughters of Zelophead”

  1. 1 judith moore July 3, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    I am sometimes called a womanist pastor because of my views on women of color. I starting a web page and Sisters Saving Ourselves, NOw because this is the time to speak loudly the voices that God gave us.

    It is time to embrace the messages that women can be anything they want to be as and stop the message: long as it is not to pastor.

    I am presenting a workshop on Zelophad daughters as an opening diaglogue for women leadership positions in the Black church.

    The challenge for me is to introduce the conversation so that both men and women would hear and be opened to these new voices.

    I am probably just dreaming. What do you think?

    • 2 Ilene July 5, 2010 at 8:29 pm

      I’m afraid I don’t know enough about Christian theology and clergy roles to intelligently respond, however the future women’s leadership roles is something that all religious and lay institutions must consider today, and it is important to have a forum for such dialogue. If your dream is to create such a space, I say go for it!

  2. 3 The server March 20, 2018 at 11:19 pm

    Nice piece. I’m impressed by the post. Thanks.

    “Sometimes those who seek to redress injustice are more in line with God’s will than those who seek to maintain the status quo.”

    You are the people we need.

  1. 1 Holier Than Thou « Aliyah L'Torah Trackback on May 7, 2010 at 8:34 am
  2. 2 Zealotry « Aliyah L'Torah Trackback on July 2, 2010 at 5:18 pm

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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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