Give Me My Land

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on July 14, 2015
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

Several years ago, our daughter, Hannah, spent the summer working at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California. She had two jobs that summer – most she worked in the office, but she also served as the “prayer coordinator” for the “Giborei Yisrael edah,” the group of campers going into 6th grade. Being on staff (as opposed to being a camper) means that one is allowed to have a cell phone at camp, and so she called home every so often to check in and let us know how she was doing. Mostly on these calls, she sounded tired – happy, but exhausted; camp is hard work. But we also got a call one time that was rather different. From the moment she said “Hello” we could tell that she was very excited about something.

Before I explain, however, some background is necessary. When Hannah became bat mitzvah, we took her to the Judaica store and helped her pick out a tallit. We also bought her tefillin, and I taught her how to use them. I explained to her why I feel that tefillin are an obligation on me, why they are part of my prayer practice and why I hoped they would be for her too. Remarkable person that she is, she actually took this to heart, and became the one girl in her class at her Solomon Schechter day-school, Pressman Academy, who put on tefillin daily. At Ramah, she was one of two girls in her edah to do so (the other being one of her best friends). It has not always been easy for her to stand out in this way, but she is quite vociferous in her convictions that women can, and ought to, embrace this mitzvah. So what happened at camp? One morning as she was preparing for morning services with the Giborei campers – that is, as she was putting on her tefillin – one of the counselors gestured to her, and pointed to one of the girls in the edah. He said to Hannah, “She was wondering if she could try on your tefillin.” Could she?! Hannah was thrilled – as that best friend (also on staff and one of Hannah’s roommates) put it, “Hannah was still glowing at lunch time.”

My feelings were more ambivalent. I understood Hannah’s pleasure, and rejoice with her when a Jewish girl shows this kind of interest. But it’s only one girl. So I also wondered why this has to be such a special, stand-out moment. Why isn’t this instead a very ordinary thing?

There’s a connection to parashat Pinhas, but again let me take a step back to explain. I used to be a regular at a gym near our home (now I do Pilates), and every now and then, there would be a motorcycle parked in the lot with a bumper sticker on it: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” Yes, apparently you can put a bumper sticker on a motorcycle; it’s a great image, isn’t it? I believe the quote is attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, but with all due respect to the First Lady, I think that it is, like many things on bumper stickers, pithy, appealing, and hopelessly reductive. And I can explain why I think so in reference to this week’s parashah. This is a fascinating parashah for those interested in the place of women in the Bible, because it has more named women in it than any other; there are nine of them. For the sake of this drash, I want to highlight six of the nine.

The first of these is Cozbi bat Tzur. She is a Midianite princess, one of the women whom the Midianites use to tempt the Israelite men into idolatry and sexual license; by the Torah’s standards, not a well-behaved woman at all. And she does get her name recorded for history. But what has she accomplished other than (to put it bluntly) Pinhas’ spear through a sensitive part of her anatomy, while in a compromising position with an Israelite man? Has her bad behavior changed anything, made anything worthwhile happen? What kind of history does she really make?

Compare her to five other women who appear in the parashah. They appear together because they are, literally as well as spiritually, sisters, and they are often referred to collectively as “the daughters of Tzelofhad,” but the Torah gives us their individual names (multiple times!), so let us at least once do the same: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah. What are these women known for? Their story appears in Num. 27, and begins thus:

The daughters of Tzelofhad…came forward…They stood before Moshe, Elazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sin; 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!” (Num. 27:1-4)

Moshe is getting ready to divvy up the Land of Israel, as the people reach the end of their wanderings in the desert and prepare to enter this new stage of their national existence. But in the system being established by Moshe, land will be given only to men and passed on through men. Having no brothers, the sisters realize that there is no one to inherit what would have been the portion allotted to their father; their immediate family will not share in the Land. And so they come forward to petition Moshe for a different outcome. Moshe takes their plea to God – Who responds:

“The daughters of Tzelofhad speak correctly; you will surely give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen, transfer their father’s share to them.” (27:6)

God goes on to impart to Moshe a more broad principle that in any case in which a man dies without living male descendants, his daughters then become his heirs.

The daughters of Tzelofhad accomplish something quite significant; a change in the law going forward that gives women a degree of rights that they did not have before – though it is true that they inherit only when there are no sons. The daughters of Tzelofhad are bold in taking action and asking for what they want, and they most certainly make history in a positive way. The more interesting question is how we evaluate their behavior by the standard of our bumper sticker. Because there is an argument to make that the daughters of Tzelofhad are, in their way, quite “well-behaved.” They are, if anything, more well-behaved than the Israelite men, who, as you may recall, have recently been acting rather inappropriately with those Midianite women.

The system Moshe is trying to establish for the Israelites is a society of God’s people in the Land. At this moment, one could argue (and certain rabbinic midrashim did) that these women have better values than the men to whom the land is supposed to go; they want their share of the Land more than the men do! They are not rebelling against the system, really; quite the opposite, one could say, they’re deeply committed to its values and want what the system wants, at least for its male members. And it’s this challenge of the system, coming from within the system and motivated by a commitment to the system and its ideals, that makes a historic change for the better.

Not surprisingly, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah have been embraced as heroines and foremothers by modern Jewish feminists seeking more rights for, and greater inclusion of, women in Jewish life. In fact, these feminists often take inspiration from a rabbinic comment amplifying the story of the daughters of Tzelof had:

When the daughters of Tzelofhad heard that the Land was being divided among tribes, to males, and not to females, they gathered each with the other to consult. They said: “God’s mercy is not like the mercy of human beings. For human beings have more compassion for males than for females. But the Holy and Blessed One is not like that; God’s compassion extends to both males and females. God’s compassion extends to all, as it is written: ‘The Lord is good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works.’ (Psalm 145:9)” (Sifre Bamidbar 133)

There is also ambivalence to this midrash that isn’t always recognized. The midrash suggests that the rabbis were capable of recognizing that there is unfairness in the treatment of men and women in Judaism and Jewish law, and even that this unfairness is not in keeping with God’s feelings for God’s creatures, all of whom are equal in Divine eyes. And the rabbis (like many religious thinkers) believed in the idea of imitatio Dei, the idea that the way to a good life is through the imitation of God’s ways to the best of our powers. And yet… The very rabbis who authored this midrash and placed it into this midrashic collection also authored many other passages that are not so compassionate to women. They made legislation that was and is harmful to women’s material well-being. They did not live up to their own, brief insight into God’s compassion for both genders.

Seeing the problem is not enough. Complaining to yourself or to your family or to a few friends about the problem is not enough. To make history, positive history, means taking responsibility for actively seeking the change that needs to happen. And it means showing the system that its own values are not being fully realized.

My teacher, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, noted an intriguing parallel in recent Jewish history. In a teshuvah he wrote on the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in our communities, he notes that their struggle is similar to that waged by Jewish women not so long ago. What links these two modern struggles is that both groups want in to the system. Like the daughters of Tzelofhad, these marginalized groups nonetheless embrace the values of the system and seek full and equal participation.

How did the first communities committed to gender egalitarianism seek to make change? By actively demonstrating both their commitment and the kind of new community they sought to bring about:

Before there were any legal arguments for the full equalization of women and men in the synagogue and house of study, there were communities that had formed themselves with a vision of such equalization. They were committed to Judaism in a way that included ritual and liturgical traditionalism, but their own narrative, their own understanding of our texts, led them to the conviction that the tradition was wrong in excluding women from any public roles… here were egalitarian communities that were preserving, not dismantling, Jewish tradition. Their commitments were familiar: the texts they venerated were the Jewish sacred texts (though they, of course, had their own interpretations of them), their liturgy was structured traditionally and was recited in Hebrew, they were Zionists, they contributed to Jewish scholarship, they supported the philanthropic institutions of mainstream Jewish society, and so on. Their vision was of a law that was being created by this encounter, this interaction. It was in fact a law “waiting in the wings” that eventually became mainstream. And it did so to our great blessing, and to that of the Jewish people.

(Image removed.: Halakhic and Metahalakhic Arguments Concerning Judaism and Homosexuality,” 20-21,

The vast majority of Conservative communities today consider themselves “egalitarian.” But in light of what I’ve been discussing here, I feel obliged to challenge us all, what does that mean to us?

In the Spring of 2014, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards adopted the responsum ( halakhah/teshuvot/2011-2020/womenandhiyyuvfinal.pdf ) “Women and Mitzvot,” by Rabbi Pamela Barmash, by a vote of 15 in favor, 3 opposed, ad 3 abstentions. As Rabbi Barmash wrote at the very outset of her paper, “Egalitarianism, the equality of women in the observance of mitzvot, is not just about the participation of women: it is about fostering the fulfillment of by all Jews” (emphasis added). The Jewish legal system differs in an important and fundamental way from that of the United States and most modern, Western countries: One is built on rights, the other on obligation. To be equal in the American system is to have equal rights: To vote, to control one’s own finances, to say what one wants. But the measure of full status as a “citizen” under Jewish law is to have full obligation to the system of commandments, ritual and interpersonal. Rabbi Barmash thus demonstrates at length and with great erudition that women’s tradition exemption from much of public Jewish ritual practice is

… because they had subordinate status. They were exempted from the mitzvot that Jews are obligated to observe in the normal course of the day, week, and year because the essential ritual acts should be performed only by those of the highest social standing, those who were independent, those who were heads of their own households, not subordinate to anyone else. Only males were considered to be fitting candidates to honor God in the most fit way.

If we believe that women in our communities are of equal worth and ability as men (if they serve as our synagogue presidents and rabbis and school principals – and as lawyers and judges and doctors and professors in the world beyond the Jewish community), then the way that ought to be reflected Jewishly is by equality not just of opportunity, but of actual obligation and participation. And so, the p’sak, the legal conclusion of Rabbi Barmash’s argument is quite straight-forward: “We rule therefore that women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot. We call upon Conservative synagogues, schools, and camps to educate men and women in equal observance of mitzotand to expect and require their equal observance of mitzvot.”

This is a call to our institutions, but it is also a call to each of us as individuals.

It can’t be enough just to declare ourselves egalitarian, just to say that anyone who wants to participate may and leave it at that. Making history, making historic change, demands that we take ownership of the changes we want to see. For example, let me tell you one of my pet peeves about my minyan (and I bet this applies to many of yours as well.). For many weeks I’ve watched amazing, bright, talented young women stand at our amud and lead services, read Torah, chant haftarah as they celebrate becoming bat mitzvah. Every one of them has a tallit. A beautiful tallit, presented to her by her parents. Usually a tallitwith a story: “We searched a dozen stores across Jerusalem until we found just the right one,” or “Your mother and grandmothers and aunts and dearest friends all got together and hand-stitched this individually designedtallit just for you.” And yet the following week, and all the weeks after that – even if you see the woman, you never again see the tallit.

Being an egalitarian community means not only recognizing the problem of inequality, but being responsible for refusing to allow it to continue. It means making sure that girls and women feel as comfortable and welcome on the bimah as their fathers, brothers, and male friends; that they are regularly and equally invited to lead and participate: Will those sitting in the pews see leadership that is representative of the community we want to be? But it also means that those who want to be better represented need to take responsibility themselves to be active participants. If we say we want what the system values – prayer, Torah, and relationship with the Divine and the community, and more – then we have to act on those values. We have to come forward, go to Moshe, and say “Give me my Land.”

Shabbat shalom.