Parashat Pinchas 5776

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, 22 July 2016


There are only six chapters in the Bible named after people: “Noah”, “Chayyei Sarah ” (Life of Sarah), “Jethro”, “Korach”, “Balak”, “Pinchas”. One out of six is perhaps not too bad if one looks at the disproportionate attention on male figures in the Torah. If we look at the totality of the Tanach – the Hebrew Bible – there are two books, Esther and Ruth named after women but then there are all the prophetical books and Ezra and Nehemiah named after men, the female prophets when they are named, such as Huldah, possibly demoted in favour of more popular male peers i.e. Jeremiah.

It is a fact of society that it has been far harder for a woman to make an impact on contemporary Britain due to a perpetuation of male domination.

And yet, has this week in politics shaken everything up? We have a female monarch who has reigned, does reign, and seems to reign on like no other – oh, perhaps other than Queen Victoria! Now we have a female Prime Minister, arguably a female Opposition Leader in Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett – leader of the Green Party; Leanne Wood – leader of Plaid Cymru; and potentially a leader of the Labour Party in Angela Eagle.

In Judaism, the Reform and Liberal Movements have key positions held by women: Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner being Senior Rabbi of the Reform Movement and Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger DBE, Senior Rabbi of its flagship Synagogue, West London; both Movements and Liberal Judaism boasting Rabbi Charley Baginsky in key positions and Rabbi Alexandra Wright as Senior Rabbi of its Liberal Judaism’s flagship Synagogue, the LJS as well as being co-Chair of the Rabbinic Conference of Liberal Judaism. Who knows, maybe Masorti and even the United Synagogue will follow us, certainly if Dina Brawer has any say.

I am delighted for many reasons including my own personal organisation that Rabbi Lea Mühlstein works with me as Rabbi of our Synagogue. Rabbi Lea is incredibly talented and together we make a mean team. She also stands as a female role model for our all our generations. As well as speaking with gentle authority, the quality that I most appreciate is her humility.

The ancient Rabbis – male – legislated harshly against the inheritance of women “despite the compelling reasons to allow daughters to inherit and despite legal ways in which they might have liberalized the law in Numbers to attain this goal (Rabbi Pamela Wax, The Women’s Torah Commentary citing Mishnah Bava Batra 8:5 & 8:2 & Bava Batra 110b & 111a)”. Men chose to inflict their rulings on their womenfolk, subjugating their rights. Where was the humility of these men to look to a higher authority as Moses had done?

Of course, this is not the only way in which women have been subjugated in halachah. Thank goodness for the primacy of laws of the land, dina d’malchuta dina invoked for the Diaspora that allows for inheritance and most civil matters to be legislated by the cultural and legal norms of the land in which Jews were living.

I am concerned that the quality of humility, anavah, is devalued in British society and especially in politics has often valued self-promotion through being all-knowing – and never wrong! So it is refreshing to hear what perhaps is a different way of doing politics – interestingly from younger women MPs: Jo Cox, Luciana Berger and now Naz Shah, apologizing and admitting that she had used and proliferated anti-Semitic language.

Humility is not a female preserve. In our parasha, Moses appreciates that the test case bought by the daughters of Zelophehad has not been provided for in the initial legislation and brings the case to a higher authority, to God. If that were the end of the story, we might be satisfied with the equality of halachah, Jewish law, regarding inheritance.

With what feels like times of chaos around us, I welcome the increasing number of women making a difference in all walks of life, having the strength and skill to bring just causes and to communicate them in such a refreshing manner, that of the daughters of Zelophehad, with humility – anavah.

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