This week we read about several issues – what to do about oaths and all about the peregrinations of the Children of Israel through the desert, amongst others.
However the last bit of the parasha picks up on something which is initiated in last week’s parasha. Indeed when read as two separate portions there is a whole portion in between the initiation of the matter and its resolution. I refer of course to the issue of the daughters of Zelophechad, who asked for an inheritance in the land of Israel so that their father’s death would not deprive them of the promised portion. Their father had no sons.
The matter is brought before God to decide what to do. The decision is that they are requesting what is only fair. It would be wrong to deprive their family of the benefit of the land. However the ruling also dictates that for the land to be inherited a daughter has to marry within the tribe.
In these liberated days this seems like a very limited kind of freedom. Are these daughters of Zelophechad actually getting their deserved portion or are they just piggy-backing off their father? Is the limitation on their marriageable circle fair? Surely it is very limiting. Yet we are looking at this through our modern eyes and ignoring the nature of this revolutionary idea – that women can have rights in property, that they are not the mere chattels of men is something which goes very deeply back to the origins of Torah.
When the Mishna at the start of Kiddushin states that a woman is ‘acquired’ in three ways and ‘acquires herself’ in two, this has nothing to do with ownership and more to do with the right to marry a particular person. The Rabbis indeed speak up and say, she is not a chattel. She is a person in her own right with property and rights in the law.
In mediaeval Europe, Jewish women were able to own property and manage businesses. The most famous of these women was Glukl of Hamburg, who was very successful in her business empire and wrote a memoir which can be read today. These Jewish women had no need of men to help them to success and were able to lead financially independent lives.
Of course today the matter of tribal land and inheritance is moot. It is many centuries – even millenia – since the land was apportioned, and then the original allotted owners exiled to far lands by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Inheritance does not extend to biblical land today. There are no records, oral or written, of which family owns which parcels. Ten of the tribes themselves are disappeared into exile, and we Jews have only the vestigial remnants of the Cohanim and Levi’im.
Women have equal rights in civil law, and it is this equality which sometimes encourages a jaundiced view when viewing Halacha through the modern eyes of a Jew born in the 21st century. We miss the liberating advance of the rabbis because our own heads are critical of what was, until only a hundred years ago, a very fair and progressive system. Indeed, modern advances have helped to address some of the inequalities which the system had built into it, by ensuring for example that in English law, men have to give their wives get before they receive a decree absolute, thus making it far less likely that they will make their wife an agunah.
The last part of the parasha reminds us that it is never wrong for us to seek solutions to problems of injustice. The daughters of Zelphechad had one problem, and the tribal elders another. Both groups came to God to ask how they should deal with their problem. In our days we also have problems which need a solution. Sometimes the solution is obvious. At others it is necessary to seek a solution from outside our own immediate circle. It is important to ensure that those who feel the need for justice are heard and their problems dealt with, and sometimes an external source will achieve that better than an internal judge. There is no shame in that.
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