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What Women Want: The Right to Self-Determination

July 2, 2021

This week’s d’var Torah on Parshat Pinchas, the Daughters of Zelophechad, and the #FreeBritney movement.

Many years ago, possibly in the first year of my rabbinate, a bat mitzvah student asked me why we bother adding the matriarchs’ names to the Amidah, since, and I quote, “They didn’t even do anything!” Her question unwittingly sparked over a decade of work on my part to bring the stories of heroic women and lesser-known characters in the Bible to a young audience. In a few months, God-willing, this work will result in an actual, honest-to-goodness chapter book, the kind of book I would have wanted to give this young person in response to her question (even though she’s now in medical school).

At the heart of this book is a story from this week’s Torah portion: the story of the Daughters of Zelophechad—Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milca, and Tirza. These women—we don’t know their ages—are orphans. As daughters, they are not permitted to inherit their father’s tribal landholding. Because they have no brothers, this landholding will be given to the nearest male relative, leaving the daughters with no means of supporting themselves, nor of carrying on their family’s name and connection to the land. 

These brave women appear before Moses and all the leadership of Israel and deliver this statement:

 “Our father died in the wilderness. … and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27:3-4).

What kind of courage must it have taken to stand before all the (male) leadership of Israel, point out this injustice, and demand their inheritance? How frustrated, how disappointed, and how desperate must they have felt to take this risk?

We can’t say for sure what was going through their minds. But we can imagine how they felt. Because events in this week’s news have shown us several instances in which women and other vulnerable groups have been denied the right to self-determination.

Of all the modern women I thought I’d compare to the Daughters of Zelophechad, I never expected that Britney Spears would be one of them. But this week, Spears appeared in front of a Los Angeles Court and asked to be released from a conservatorship she had been under for 13 years. The conservatorship gave her father, and a small team of advisors, power over her finances, her professional schedule, her personal life, and even her medical decisions, ranging from being committed to a psychiatric institution to being forced to use a particular method of birth control. She said of the conservatorship: “It’s not OK to force me to do anything I don’t want to do. … I don’t feel like I can live a full life.”

How are these two stories, from two different millennia, similar? Because in each of them, a woman, or group of women, appears before the judicial system, asking for the right to self-determination.

If the daughters of Zelophechad cannot inherit their father’s land, it forces them to rely on their male relatives to support them, which would give those male relatives the power to make decisions about their lives and their future. Similarly, if Spears cannot control her own finances, her schedule, her relationships, or even her body, the course of her life will continue to be determined by her father, who may or may not have her best interests at heart.

And how are these two stories different? Unfortunately, the judge from the LA Superior Court denied Spears’ request to remove her father from her conservatorship. Ironically, the daughters of Zelophechad, met with a much more progressive response.

Moses brings the case before God, who not only approves their request, but also changes the law so that it will protect women in their position from that moment on. God says: “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them” (Numbers 27:7).

Rabbi Alex Kress adds: “This case is notable, not only because it is a rare instance in the Torah in which specific women identify injustice and have their voices elevated, but also because God rules against the established patriarchal norms. … Rashi further elucidates God’s words, saying, “This tells us that their [Zelophehad’s daughters] eye saw what Moses’ eye did not see.” This story of women fighting for justice should be rightly celebrated because it demonstrates the Torah’s perspective, that when women advocate for themselves and speak out against injustice, the men who maintain the status quo rule are obliged to respond…. We must listen and we must act. We must follow the five biblical sisters’ example and stand up for justice by speaking out, challenging established norms in our community, and holding each other accountable.”

This is not only relevant in the Spears’ case, but rather in the many battles that we are fighting today for the right of self-determination: the right to make choices about our own bodies and how we build families, the right to live and love in ways that are authentic to us, and the right to speak out, be heard, and have our abusers face consequences in cases of harassment and assault. Even today, winning these battles is not guaranteed. But we have to keep fighting, not only for ourselves, not only for women, but for all those who fight for the right to determine their own futures.

The daughters of Zelophechad take up this fight in part to secure their own immediate future. But this is not their only objective. They also want something to pass on to their descendants, and to preserve their father’s name, by retaining his holding in the Promised Land. And whether this was their intention or not, their challenge to this unjust law opens up a new path for those who might someday find themselves in the same situation. Ultimately, it is their fight for justice, not their retention of the land, that ensures that their father’s name is not lost. In fact, it is by way this story and its resulting law that we still speak their names aloud today: the daughters of Zelophechad—Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirza.