Thursday, 05 Jul 2018

Written by Daniela Touati

daughters of zelophehadThis last year I have learned a lot about myself. In fact I have learned a lot about me as a woman, but from a men’s perspective. Every month, during the Rosh Chodesh gatherings that I have facilitated at ELELS[1], we studied topical issues about women. How the rabbis in the Talmud interpreted these subjects. Topics ranged from kosher sex, mother-daughter relationships, violent women, prayer and women, wise women and many others.

As you can imagine, there are very few texts that deal with women’s rights and restoring political or economic justice to women. When one finds such a text, it is worth digging it out and expounding on it.

At the beginning of chapter 27 in the book of Numbers, we find a story that deals with the right of women to inherit land from their deceased father.

The general rule in Judaism is that a woman cannot inherit from a man. But here, the five daughters of Zelophehad bring forth an exceptional case: their father died and they were left alone, they have no brother, no other close relatives except their father’s brothers. They come to plead in front of Moses and ask him to change the law. The five daughters’ names are Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milkah, and Tirzah.

The story appears in the middle of parashat Pinchas that deals with the census of the twelve tribes, before the allocation of parcels of land to each of them. God states that land is to be distributed depending on the number of people of each tribe.

But Zelophehad’s daughters are not part of the census. As a result, they decide to raise their voice and fight for their legitimate rights, starting by being counted. It looks so advanced for biblical times and almost feminist.

Moses ponders. Has he again to face one of the numerous leadership crisis? Or is it rather a fair case to bring in front of God? Moses is sensitive to these women’s request, and decides to move the case forward. God surprisingly agrees: yes their case is just, the law has to be adjusted, women can inherit when there is no male heir.

This happy ending is not as wonderful as it looks however. Several chapters later, in Numbers 36, this very cutting edge decision is appealed by the father’s brothers who claim that the land should remain within the tribe. For this purpose, the daughters of Zelophehad can inherit the land only if they marry within their clan.

In the Talmud, these five women are described as wise, why are they wise? Because they knew how to seize the right moment to speak up[2]. One can infer from this that women have to be very patient for things to change. As Judith Rose writes in her poem:

“I know about the daughter longing for change, who hopes for her daughter not to sit and wait.[3]

2018 marks the centenary of women’s right to vote. While attending the Nisa-Nashim conference last March, I came across a new book by Helen Pankhurst called ‘Deeds not Words’. Helen is the granddaughter of a famous Woodford inhabitant and suffragette – Sylvia Pankhurst.

She describes her family, the fight for women’s suffrage that started in the mid 19th century, and succeeded only several decades later. The British parliament allowed women to vote in 1918, but in the first instance, not all of them. Only those over 30 years old, not all social classes: only graduates of British universities, wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of 5£ and more. By 1928, these distinctions were abolished and all women over 21 were allowed to vote[4]. This was not the case in France, for example, where women had to wait until after World War II to obtain the right to vote. Besides, the women’s right to vote in Britain was only one step on the road towards equality: in 1922 they gained equal inheritance rights, in 1975 the right to open a separated bank account.

Looking back, the suffragettes’ movement is now part of our history, and women can be proud of all their achievements. Nevertheless, 2018 is a year when one can ask again: is this going to last? Is the path towards progress going to continue?

In today’s western countries, equality is still not achieved, in terms of equal pay for equal work, or representation in politics, to cite only two.

Jewish women have to face this, as well as the unexpected consequences of intersectionality.

What is intersectionality?  It is a sociological theory describing all types of discriminations. When one’s identity intersects with several minority classes: race, gender, ethnicity, social classes. However, intersectionality does not go as far as rejecting antisemitism. It has its limits. Post-modern feminists, who fight against racism, advocate for social-justice and equal representation, fail to act on antisemitism. Thus, they let their Jewish sisters on the side of the road of their struggles.

This is what happened at the 2018 Women’s March, when its co-leaders Tamika Mallory, and Linda Sarsour refused to distance themselves from the anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, who is well known for his transphobic, homophobic and anti-Semitic positions[5]. As a result, the reality today is that Jewish women are ostracized. There is no place for us among this new generation of amnesic feminists.

The daughters of Zelophehad show us a path, where the need of a disadvantaged minority can be met without infringing others’ rights. Women and men, different minority groups and sections of our society are not meant to play off one against the other, but rather to accept that each of them have a place to exist and to improve its condition.

Daniela Touati  4th year student rabbi


[1] East London and Essex Liberal Synagogue

[2] BT Bava Batra 119b.

[3] The Torah : a women’s commentary, Judith Rose “ I know about the woman who sits and waits”, p.988

[4] Helen Pankhurst, Deeds not words, ed. Sceptre books, 2018, p.27


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