“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!”(Numbers 27.4)
The Biblical tale of the Daughters of Zelophehad is troubling to today’s Liberal Jew for a number of reasons.
The five sisters of its title – Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah – wish to inherit their father’s property after his death in the wilderness, which as women they are not entitled to do.
But as Zelophehad had no son, Moses takes the case to God – who rules the sister’s plea is just and they should have their father’s hereditary holding.
Later, a condition of the inheritance was added that the women could marry only men from their father’s Manasseh tribe, so that their share of the inheritance was not lost to another clan.
The issues here are fairly obvious. The Torah is telling us that only sons can inherit their father’s wealth (note a mother is never mentioned). Only in cases where there are no sons can a daughter inherit, and even then only with permission and strict rules laid down directly by God himself.
But we can also look at the daughters as feminist forerunners – ushering in equality in the same way as Emmeline Pankhurst or Rabbi Jackie Tabick.
Women owning land in Biblical times was just as radical a shift as women winning the vote 100 years ago or becoming rabbis in the 1970s – all things we now take for granted.
In Biblical law, women were treated as property – whether it was of their father or their husband – not owners of property. Property gives you agency, power and a voice. So what can this initially troubling story tell today’s Liberal Jew? That to live and shape meaningful Judaism, we have to feel ownership of it, no matter our gender.
- Sandra Kviat is rabbi at Crouch End Chavurah