Parashat Pinchas 5781

29 June 2021 – 19 Tammuz 5781

Rabbi Rebecca Birk

History happens all the time. And of course changes are made to laws, customs and ideas.

This month Rabba Dr Lindsay Taylor Guthhartz became the first UK based orthodox woman to receive semicha at the Yeshivat Maharat. (Dina Brawer received hers in the U.S) I can’t stress how important this is for us even though as Liberal Jews it’s been old news. We claim Regina Jonas the first in Europe, 1935 followed by Jackie Tabick in 1976. All of them came from a situation where they asked for more. They asked for greater, fuller Jewish inheritance. Every time that happens, surely we must applaud and encourage.

Indeed it was only 2011 when our Queen, Elizabeth II, changed the laws of succession. Sons and daughters of any future UK monarch will have equal right to the throne. Commonwealth leaders agreed to this progression, so it’s now enshrined in constitutional law.

The desire to receive inheritance equally and equitably is a good one. And it stems from a desire to be alive and engaged.

“The secret of success,” Jackson Pollock’s father wrote to the teenage artist-to-be, “is to be fully awake to everything about you.”

Being awake is what the daughters of Zelophechad famously were in this week’s portion of Pinchas. After appraising their family situation and legacy they saw what was missing, them being able to inherit. And amazingly when they asked, their request was granted. “Zelophehad … had no sons, only daughters” (v26:33). And [so] …The daughters of Zelophehad … came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and said… 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!” (27:1-4)

Being fully awake to everything about you is what made our founders and builders insist on a tweak in Jewish inheritance, for all to be open. Let women come down from the balconies, insisted Lily Montagu over a century ago.

Moses needed to confer with God, he was uncertain. Naturally. But the answer was a resounding “yes”. And these daughters paved the way for women. To inherit. And we continue this tradition of being awake and asking for more. Only last month at our shared Shavuot celebrations the scholar and theologian Professor Judith Plaskow reiterated the words in her 1990 book Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective “I am not a Jew in the synagogue and a feminist in the world. I am a Jewish feminist and a feminist Jew in every moment of my life.” The poet Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, asked the same in her poem Jerusalem Shadow from 1990 “let my people in / to history.”

I can’t help but celebrate this portion again. The chutzpah of Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah invite us to consider what we might need to ask for next.
That’s what Mr Pollock meant when he told his artist son to be awake. And for us the laws of financial inheritance that Zelphechad’s daughters negotiated, have transformed for us into a keenness of equal inheritance and opportunities for leadership.

It’s always been there. It was Henrietta Szold who captured that [the] Jewish heart has always starved unless it was fed through the Jewish intellect. Indeed this intellectual and religious inheritance feels old news doesn’t it? And then we see the change and the requests happening to our orthodox siblings just next door. We are in this together.

I wonder now, if we must, as Liberal Jews, wake up to the task in hand of articulating the legacy we receive to create a renewed strong and articulate expression of our faith and our Judaism. Here’s to more audacious asking.

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