The role of Jewish women has changed radically during my lifetime. When I was growing up in the 1950s, women certainly had their place in the synagogue — and that place was the kitchen. Sisterhood members cooked and baked, arranged flowers and cookies, and provided treats for children’s activities. Sometimes they were consulted about wallpaper and carpeting, and they would meet over luncheons or teas for programs that featured music, literature, and fashion.
It’s true that today the synagogue kitchen is still a women’s place, but that’s because those women who work in the kitchen enjoy cooking or have a particular talent for hospitality. (And perhaps because they think the men would make a mess of things.)
And while the kitchen is still a women’s place, women are in every other place in the synagogue as well. They are on the board and on the bima, they teach in Hebrew schools and in programs of advanced Jewish learning, and they are lay leaders and professionals in virtually every Jewish organization there is. Women rabbis are no longer as rare as unicorns and a number of Modern Orthodox shuls employ female spiritual leaders — highly educated women who teach Torah, counsel congregants, and help women prepare for lifecycle rituals.
How did all of this happen? This week’s parasha provides part of the answer. The first part of Pinchas describes the census of adult males conducted near the end of the wilderness years. God tells Moses and Elazar, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community from the age of 20 years up, by their ancestral houses, all Israelites able to bear arms.” And after the counting has been completed, God says, “Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names: with larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups reduce the share. Each is to be assigned its share according to its enrollment.”
And they we come to an extraordinary story. The Torah says:
The daughters of Zelophehad … came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, 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 … 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.”
Moses doesn’t know how to answer them, so he consults God, who says, “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen.”
They stood before Moses, Elazar, the chieftains, and the whole assembly at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Imagine the courage that took! They were women — really girls, for none of them was yet married — who had been raised to have no role in public affairs, to go from their father’s house to the homes of their husbands, to tend home and children while the men took care of everything else. Nonetheless, they came forward and asked to be treated equally. They had to have been terrified, and yet they did it.
And God replied, “The women are right.” It’s as if God were saying, “I created men and women as equals and so they have always been — I’ve just been waiting for you to catch up.”
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.