Sermon: B’not Zelophehad and Real Change

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 11 July 2020

So that was easy.

A group experiencing a systemic injustice, facing inequality in the law, name it for the powers that be.  It is recognised, their position is acknowledged as just, and it is acted upon.
And thus goes the story of the daughters of Zelophehad.

Now, I don’t want to play it down too much.  This is an amazing and wonderful story.
That it is there in our text at all is important and remarkable.

It is a rare example in Torah of powerful women acting.  In fact, not merely acting, but crafting Torah as opposed to merely receiving it.  This is the first moment in the biblical narrative, when human beings are active partners in shaping the detail of law.  As our colleague Sylvia Rothschild has put it: “This is something entirely new in the narrative – for someone to come to Moses with a principled resolve based on what they understand to be the right thing to do.”

Their example is a reminder to all of us – in the heart of our foundational narrative – that it is possible, necessary, to stand up in the face of inequality; that law – even divine law – can be and should be challenged.

It is little wonder then, that this short story is a source of inspiration for many of us as we seek to craft a Judaism that is truly egalitarian, open, and progressive.

But, as a model of how change really happens?  We know that things are not quite so simple.

In fact, the Torah itself shows us that.

Just a few chapters later, another voice, a counterclaim, appears.  In our portion it is established that daughters are to inherit in the absence of a male heir.  But the men of the tribe of Manasseh object.  If the daughters of Zelophehad inherit but then marry someone from another tribe, then ownership of their property, the inherited tribal land, would effectively pass into a different tribe – that of their new husband.  This would diminish the ancestral portion assigned to their tribe.

So there is a further ruling – that women without brothers may indeed inherit.  But then they must marry within their father’s tribe.
They may inherit, but their autonomy, their freedom to act with that inherited land is restricted – so in the long term the land returns to the men of the tribe.
The status quo is firmly re-established by those with power.

What happens to the daughters of Zelophehad in rabbinic literature is also interesting.
In our formative literature, they are subsumed into the rabbinic exercise itself.  Their success is explained by their ability to play the rabbinic game.  Various texts explain that they were wise, that they knew scripture.  That is, they were successful because they behaved as good men should.
Now from one perspective we can celebrate this transformation.  As modern Progressive Jews who see our Judaism as open to all, who celebrate having women scholars, women rabbis, it is a source of inspiration that in the Talmud, these women are described as being Chachmaniyot – women of wisdom, Darshaniyot -, expounders of Torah, Tzidkaniyot –righteous women.  It gives our daughters permission to be those things.

But we should not be naïve about what they are meant to do in the context of rabbinic literature.  There, what do such texts do?  They contribute to the idea that these are good women.  To be contrasted with others.  It is an early version of Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘lean in’ philosophy in which women can learn to succeed by being more like the men.

And, of course, like good women, they were still, according to the rabbis, modest and virtuous, and really they understood their place – the words “If our father had a son, we would not have spoken” are put into their mouths as a reminder.

And heaven forfend that they should have been the ones that initiated change.  Moses, we are told by multiple texts, already knew that this was the law, and only went to God for the answer to show due deference.  Any woman who has sat in a meeting and watched their idea being appropriated by the men around the table would recognise the revisionism.

Of course this is all the case.
Because the short story in our portion is not the way that dealing with inequality really works.  We know it is much messier than that.  Those with power rarely reply, as God does – oh yes, their case is just – let’s just change.

Real changes are harder to achieve, have to be worked at.

It is not enough that we identify inequality and change appears.  We know about the gender pay gap, we know about the lack of women in major leadership positions in many fields, we know about the disproportionate amount of work in the home done even by working women, exacerbated by the impact of pandemic, we know about the broken work culture in many professions that forces out those seeking any form of work-home balance, or to be actively involved in the raising of their children.  Those of us who were privileged to hear the lecture a couple of weeks ago by our member Professor Shani Orgad had to confront those realities.
We can say all of these things, we can say that the claim for change is just.  But real change needs a different form of action.

And the same is true, of course, of the many other inequalities that remain within our society, so many of which have been highlighted by our shared experience of the last few months: not least the disproportionate impact of Covid on Black and Ethnic Minority communities, on those with disabilities, and as Matthew has taught in his Dvar Torah, on those with lower income, including many working in caring professions – clapped for, but not even paid a living wage.
Knowing and naming, whatever the message of our short story, is rarely sufficient.

It is no surprise, therefore that change often comes in the wake of trauma.  True changes to inequality often follow catastrophe.  In his book, The Great Leveller, Austrian academic Walter Scheidel argues that real societal levelling has historically happened mainly in the wake of violent ruptures – He calls these the ‘Four Horsemen’ of levelling: mass-mobilization war, revolution, state collapse or catastrophic plague.

This is why, earlier on this year, some were expressing expectation of a radical reimagining of society in the wake of our current pandemic

But radical change – in fact any change – now seems deeply unlikely, whatever the talk of ‘building back better’.

So what are we to learn from the B’not Zelophehad?
Their story is hugely important.  They are a source of inspiration for those of us who wish to build a Judaism which is equal and progressive.

Chachmaniyot, Darshaniyot, Tzidkaniyot – they are truly worthy of naming our daughters after.

But what they are not is a model of how change happens.  Torah and rabbinic literature seek to restrict, to redefine, to re-establish the status quo.

And of course we know that this happens in our reality too.

So, if we believe that a cause is just, it is not enough to just say it.  Real change is much harder than this.
Real change requires of us hard work.