Wednesday, 26 Jun 2013

Written by Student Rabbi Julia Grishchenko

Woman protest

There are only six chapters in the Bible named after people:  “Noah”, “Chayyei Sarah ” (Life of Sarah), “Jethro”, “Korach”, “Balak”, “Pinchas”. The central theme of almost every one of  these chapters is the person after whom they are named.

Pinchas appears only at the beginning of this parashah. He is the grandson of Aaron, who kills an Israelite and a Midianite woman in flagrante delicto because of his zealousness for God. The first verses of this week’s reading appear to provide divine sanction for a zealous, violent, act of religious fanaticism, which becomes the justification for a perpetual covenant of priesthood with Pinchas and his descendants.

For me, as a modern human, it seems blasphemous. And I’m not ready to justify such killings by religious zeal. But I shall leave that outside the brackets, because the sidra’s focus shifts to a different, wonderful story about women. And most women’s stories are very life-affirming!

We meet the remarkable daughters of Zelophechad who present and ultimately prevail in their claim for an inheritance in Eretz Israel. The names of these five sisters were Machlah,  Noah, Choglah,  Milcah, and Tirzah.  It’s important to list their names; the Torah does it three times, in full. They had no brothers, their father had died in the wilderness, but he was not involved in the Korach rebellion, as the sisters are quick to point out to Moses.  According to one view, which is contained in the Talmud (Shabbat 96), their father was the biblically unnamed Israelite who was collecting firewood on the Sabbath. And he died as a punishment for his own sin. However, he did not incite others to sin. And now his daughters ask about their inheritance. O, yes, these women have a talent of asking men uncomfortable questions at the moment when a they are very busy! Now, here is Moses beginning to parcel out the Promised land, and it’s all set to go through the sons in each tribe.   The daughters of Zelophechad were brave enough to declare that this situation is not fair for their family.  The sisters said “why do we get nothing just because we are women and we have no brothers?”  It should be noted that the sisters are motivated not by greed, to get the land in any way. They are motivated by a desire to restore justice, by one of the fundamental principles in the existence of the world.

And Moses has no immediate answer, instead he simply retires to consult with an even higher authority, with God. And God says that the request of these sisters is equitable.

In this passage, we are faced with possibly the first, well organized and successful statement by women about their civil rights. Let us also note that this event directly follows the terrible crisis that nearly destroyed the entire congregation of the sons and daughters of Israel; but the daughters of Zelophechad asked for freedom and equality for Israelite women in the Promised Land.

In 1920, 93 years ago, in London, as once in the wilderness of Midian, gathered five active Jewish militant suffragette ladies. They had a traditional cup of tea; consulted and decided to establish the Women’s International Zionist Organization in order to help Jewish women and children in Palestine and  to provide community services there. The names of these five glorious daughters of Zion are Rebecca Sieff, Dr. Vera Weizmann (wife of Israel’s first president, Dr. Chaim Weizmann), Edith Eder, Romana Goodman and Henrietta Irwell. In 1949, after the establishment of the State of Israel, this organization moved its headquarters to Israel and continued its political activity there. However, this global organization did not restrict its focus to Israeli women but also Jewish women in the Diaspora. For example, the organization’s activists organized protest actions in support of women refuseniks in the former Soviet Union. I found about this organization quite by chance many years ago in my first visit in Israel.

They had to be really brave to challenge about their rights, and even more boldness was required from the daughters of Zelophechad; we know that the last woman who challenged Moses’ authority, his own sister Miriam, was struck down with leprosy. But we also know that these five sisters grew up in the wilderness, and they were not off the generation of slaves who had died out by now. These girls are the first generation of women who believed in their own right to be heard and vindicated, even if this would need God’s support. And they did it gently, but confidently.

But let us not think that this was the first women’s protest. Let us recall the time of the Exodus. It was obvious that in such difficult times, people needed to listen to their leaders Moses and Aaron. However, it was the women who resisted the building of the Golden Calf, despite the fact that the order came from Aaron. Thanks to women, it became clear that the leaders’ commands are not always compulsory, even if this leader is a prophet. It is true, the Midrash says, that Aaron calls only for the women’s jewelry because he assumed that they will naturally resist giving it up.
If we reflect enough we can find a lot in common between the act of Pinchas and the act of the daughters of Zelophechad. They all stood up and acted for justice, but they chose radically different methods for upholding justice. And I will not deny that in my view the gender difference determined their behavior; so in one chapter, step by step, we see violence and civil protest. The act of the women was a very civilized response to Pinchas’s brutality.

There is an Italian engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist and philosopher called Vilfredo Pareto who is known for his teachings on “the tactics of lions and foxes”. I find this a very suitable metaphor for this week’s sidra. The “lions” are characterized by openness and determination in their management style, a reliance on power and the authoritarian methods of governing. “Lions” are also extremely conservative. If  the “Foxes” hold sway they do so through the use of various means of manipulation, political combinations, deceit, and compromise. They more often resort to deals and compromises.

According to statistics in the modern world, it is men who willingly choose demonstrations to express their views; does this mean that women are passive in defending their rights? Certainly not! And the history of feminism is the best proof of this. However, in my view, women often choose the subtler methods of protest – like educational seminars and flash mobs.

About a couple of years ago, I was impressed by a women’s protest in Beit Shemesh. Beit Shemesh is a town near Jerusalem that was in the centre of a big row because of the tensions between secular and religious Israelis. The reason for this conflict was the growing demand by fundamentalist religious elements to exclude women from public life in Israel. More than 250 women participated in a flash-mob in Beit Shemesh to the sounds of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”. They danced in protest against gender segregation in public spaces. Again, very gently, but confidently.

The way of the five sisters, the daughters of Zelophechad would work for legal changes in the society. This way becomes the basis for the law of precedent. And all sensible human beings should agree that this is the best way to build a society which is based on justice and righteous.

Student Rabbi Julia Grishchenko
June 2013

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.