The Daughters of Zelofchad and the Ideal Society

So what’s the story with the daughters of Zelofchad? In this week’s parsha they stand up for their rights. They demand to inherit their late father’s share of the Land of Israel, side by side with his brothers. Moses asks G-d what to do, and He takes their side. So women are equal, right?

Perhaps… until next week. Next week we come to the end of Bamidbar and what do we find? The men are worried the daughters of Zelofchad will marry out of the tribe and the land will slip out of tribal hands. Moses goes to G-d on this too, but this time the outcome isn’t quite so women-friendly. The daughters of Zelofchad must marry their cousins.

What’s up with that?!

Well, I’m afraid those of us who expect to find full fledged feminism and an unequivocal demand for equality from women who lived over three thousand years ago will be disappointed. Even the sisters’ original request never amounted to a demand for full equality.

The good news is that at least according to midrash, the actions of Tirzah, Noah, Milka, Hogla and Mahla do reflect a higher ideal of equality that society can strive for.

A demand for full equality would have required women and men to inherit their parents equally. If this is what the sisters were after, we would expect them to cry out; to say that as women they were being wronged and demand justice; at the very least we would expect them to site equality as a basis for their demand. But what the daughters actually said was: ‘Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son?’ (Bamidbar 27:4) Even once their request was granted, it wasn’t their own names they set out to save, nor the name of their mother that has indeed been lost to history, but their father’s name. Their motivation was the same as the one expected by the Torah of a woman whose husband died before they had children. A man who dies needs a man with the same name to continue working his land. They were asking that their male children carry on their father’s name and work in his plot. Why this would be so important is an interesting question for a different discussion, but it is clearly not founded on a feminist worldview. On the contrary, it’s obvious that the daughters’ entire identity was subsumed by the men in their lives, and their request rested on the assumptions of the patriarchal society of which they were a part.

But is society’s point of view the same as G-d’s point of view? When the society we are talking about is the people of Israel, following divine revelation, we may be tempted to answer with a resonating yes. Surprisingly, the story of the daughters of Zelofchad proves otherwise.

When the daughters consider their deceased father’s loss at not having someone to continue his name, they aren’t acting out of concern for themselves or out of feminist ideals; they’re moved by love for their father. Through the lens of love, the norms of patriarchal society are meaningless. What does it matter, they ask, if our father had sons or daughters? As the midrash puts it:

When the daughters of Zelofchad heard that the Land was to be parceled out to males but not to females, they got together to take counsel from each other and they said: ‘Heaven’s mercy is unlike the mercy of humans. People have mercy only for males, but He who spoke and created the world has mercy for males and females alike… as it is written: “and His tender mercies are over all His works” (Psalms 145:9)

The daughters of Zelofchad were well aware of their society’s attitude toward women — ‘no mercy for women’ – and they had even internalized it. But when they were thinking with compassion of their late father, they couldn’t bring themselves to think in the patriarchal terms they were used to. They couldn’t accept that G-d would think in such terms. It was this compassion that allowed them a glimpse of the divine ideal.

Yes, society will catch up with the sisters in next week’s portion, and force them to marry within their own tribe, but for now we get a glimpse of what society has to strive for: a benevolent point of view, a loving point of view, a truly just point of view, that views men and women as inherently equal. G-d’s point of view.

But doesn’t the divine command we’ll read about next week, that Zelofhad’s daughters must marry their cousins, say something more problematic about G-d’s view of equality? More on that on Tu Be’Av.