I contributed a little drash-let to Jewess this week on the daughters of Tzelophchad. Here’s the beginning part:
The story of the daughters of Tzelophechad is a favorite among Jewish feminists. One can see why: five women come before Moshe and the other (male) leaders of the assembly, in front of the entrance to the most sacred site of the desert-bound Israelites, and ask to inherit their familial plot of land from their father. (At the time, an inheritance would pass to other male relatives if the deceased had left no sons.) Moshe asks God, and God says, â€œThe daughters of Tzelophechad spoke justly,â€ and instructs Moshe to give them their fatherâ€™s holdings. Itâ€™s feminist goodness all around. And, as a bonus, the narrator of Numbers 27 tells us that these daughters are called Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah â€” unlike Lotâ€™s wife, Noahâ€™s wife, and so many other women in the Bible, these ladies have names, concrete identities of their own.
Predictably, however, thereâ€™s a backlash. A few parshiot later â€” in Maâ€™asei, Numbers 36 â€” the family heads of the daughtersâ€™ clan come to Moshe and the other important guys and complain that, if our heiresses marry someone from outside the tribe, their own tribe will lose out on land, because, naturally, the daughtersâ€™ property will transfer to their husbands. Suddenly this picture of female independence is not so rosy â€” it seems that these women donâ€™t really own this land unequivocally. When the women are acquired in marriage, their property is acquired as well, and it does not, for example, pass down to the children through the motherâ€™s tribal line.
Here, too, God hears the request and finds it reasonable â€” â€œjust,â€ as God did with the daughters. Here, too, God addresses the specific case and establishes a more general rule: â€œEvery daughter among the Israelite tribes who inherits a share must marry someone from a clan of her fatherâ€™s tribe, in order that every Israelite may keep his ancestral share.â€ Women who inherit find their personal lives severely restricted. From a pshat [literal] reading of the text, it doesnâ€™t even seem that she has the option to refuse her inheritance and marry whomever she pleases!
When I look at the micro of this story â€” the qualifications and limitations placed on the women and their inheritance, especially after theyâ€™d already been given it with no strings attached â€” I find it infuriating. And yet, the bigger picture reveals a larger underlying tension â€” namely, the tension between the individual and the community.
The rest of it is here.