The daughters of Zelophechad from "The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons" (1908)
The daughters of Zelophechad from "The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons" (1908)

How 5 Jewish daughters reformed a rule and changed society 

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Pinchas

Numbers 25:10–30:1


This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, highlights two ideas that are profoundly important, not just because they are interesting historically, but because they are relevant to and pressing in our own time: the dangers of extremism and the significance of leadership.

These ideas are interrelated. Without effective moral leadership, extremism — and many other problems, such as injustice and inequality — can flourish and damage our societies. We’ve seen that happen over the last several years in the United States and in Israel.

While Pinchas himself is a clear model of extremism in the Torah, the daughters of Zelophechad represent a key model of leadership, and of female leadership especially.

Two earlier Biblical models of leadership are best exemplified by Moses and his brother Aaron.

In many ways, Moses is the “founder” of the Jewish nation, an inspirational but at times fear-inspiring leader who displays an authoritarian streak. After the Israelites create a golden calf, he punishes them by having them melt it, grind it into powder and then drink it mixed in water.

Aaron, the high priest, is a softer kind of leader, more diplomat and peacemaker than hierarchical figure. During the golden calf episode, he practices crisis management, acting like “one of the people” and participating in the creation of the calf in order to prevent an even worse action.

The daughters of Zelophechad convey a very different kind of leadership, a model related more to audacity and social criticism than to authority, power or management technique. These women serve as protesters, and disruptors, of an unjust status quo.

After their father Zelophechad dies, the daughters — Zelophechad had no sons — come forward and demand, openly and forcefully, that they be given the land that their father possessed. At the time, only male heirs or relatives were allowed to inherit the property of the deceased.

The fact that these women assert themselves in such a public way, “at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” before Moses and other powerful leaders of the time, is astounding. They refuse to be victims of an unfair system. They boldly, and counterculturally, argue for the rights of women.

“Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan,” they plead before the gathered assembly, “just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27:4)

Moses, persuaded by the moral force of their argument, presents the daughters’ case to God. “The plea of Zelophechad’s daughters is just,” God says. “You should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.” (Numbers 27:7)

As a result of their courage and righteous indignation, the daughters of Zelophechad not only inherit their father’s property — they disrupt, and ultimately overturn, an unfair status quo. The women establish, through an appeal to justice and sheer force of will, a new precedent.

From this point forward, God decrees, “If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.” (Numbers 27:8)

While this law may not be as egalitarian as most of us would wish for today, it does represent a rupture in, and a transformation of, the previous system of rights in the biblical period. And it acknowledges and addresses, at least in this scenario, discrimination against women.

Because the daughters of Zelophechad call truth to power, they reform a systemic ethical problem in the nascent Jewish community. Their protest results in concrete change. They are both social critics and thought leaders at an early and important stage of the nation of Israel.

In calling truth to power, in defying authority in order to promote a more just reality, these women have much in common with the prophets who will follow them. And they show how moral leadership can serve as a corrective to injustice and a catalyst for changing society.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City.