24 Tammuz 5772 / July 13-14, 2012
In this week’s portion, Pinchas, we find a unique stand taken for women’s rights. The five daughters of a man named Zelophechad (try learning to spell that as a child!) approached the Israelite leadership and shared that their father had passed away without leaving any sons. They hoped that despite being women, they would be able to inherit their father’s holdings, which at the time was not the norm. Moses brings the question to God, who states that the daughters are just in their request, and that if a man dies without leaving a son, his daughters shall inherit.
While today this may not seem like such a big deal, to suggest a few thousand years ago that women were able to inherit property was quite significant. And while the decree may not have been perfect according to contemporary egalitarian standards (as after all, sons would still inherit before daughters), in the time period, it was assumed that the daughters would marry men who had their own holdings, and thus there was arguably less of a need for them to inherit than there was for sons.
There are still a number of places around the world where women aren’t treated with such respect. Frankly, while not as bad as in some other countries, there are myriad arguments to be made that women in the United States have yet to truly achieve equality with their male counterparts, be it by the failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment or the reality that women are often paid less than men to do the same job. Only 17 of 100 U.S. Senators are women (17%), and only 73 of 435 U.S. Congresspersons are women (16.8%), despite women being almost 51% of the U.S. population. While the glass ceiling may now have a few holes poked in it, it is far from shattered.
While one might assume a lack of what we might contemporarily term “equality” in the Orthodox world today, at least from an egalitarianism point of view, even within the liberal Jewish community women often are not given the same respect and/or opportunities as men. For example, female rabbis often have a much harder time securing pulpit jobs than their male counterparts; and when they do secure such jobs, they are often paid less, because the assumption is that they have a male significant other who is bringing home the primary paycheck.
This Shabbat, in honor of the daughters of Zelophechad who asserted their rights, reflect on the women in your life. Find ways to show your appreciation and gratitude to them, and resolve to make our Jewish community and the world around us one in which women are full, equal partners, who are given the respect and honor they deserve.