Photo Credit: Sergiu Bacioiu from Romania, Wikimedia.org
Pinchas: Women’s Wisdom and the Ripple Effect
by Muriel Dance
Parshat Pinchas has been like a stone thrown into the pond of my being; it has rippled out over the decades: from the Rosh Hodesh portion that reminded me of my womanhood, to a challenge to step into my female Jewish authority, and finally to hearing the deep spiritual instruction about how to be at this age. Knowing that our understandings of a particular parsha change over time, here’s my story.
Twelve years after I completed an orthodox conversion, I chanted the fifth aliyah of parshat Pinchas in Yedidya–a women’s minyan in the feminist orthodox congregation in Jerusalem–my daughter Margalit by my side.
Two years later this parshah turned out to be my son’s bar mitzvah portion; I drove him to his weekly tutoring with an orthodox rabbi, and he chanted the full kriat HaTorah (Torah reading) in a small Orthodox minyan where I could only smile. After that, my daughter announced that she wanted a bat mitzvah like her brother’s, where she could do the full kriat HaTorah. That announcement spurred me to re-engage with the Torah chanting I had learned in Jerusalem. To lighten the seven aliyot that became a burden, I prepared the 6th Aliyah. Imagine the pride of watching her lead the Torah service, and chanting Torah and the Haftarah! I envied her fluency and resolved to build that confidence for myself.
As I participated more actively in Shabbat services, my female congregational rabbi offered me an opportunity to use my skills as an adult educator in the congregation. First, I taught Hebrew and Introduction to Judaism and then eventually I chaired the adult education committee. I began to consider going back to school for rabbinic ordination.
Such decisions often take longer than expected. Fourteen years later, I left Seattle for rabbinical school in Los Angeles. My farewell drash (sermon) to the Conservative congregation that had supported my Jewish education was on parshat Pinchas. In this ripple, parshat Pinchas had become important to me because of the daughters of Zelophehad, who represented powerful role models for Jewish women and especially for me making the choice to become Jewish clergy.
Now as I face retirement from my second Jewish clergy position, I have another opportunity to plumb parshat Pinchas.
In the time of Bamidbar, property could only be inherited by males. Zelophehad’s daughters audaciously requested that Moses reinterpret the laws of inheritance so they could inherit their father’s land, because he had no sons. A midrash on Numbers 27:1 explains “When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the Land was being divided among the tribes according to the males and not the females, they gathered to take council. They said, “God’s compassion is not like human compassion. Humans are more compassionate toward males then than females, but He Who Spoke and the world came into being is not like that. His compassion extends to every creature”” (The Book of Legends, ed. Bialik & Ravnitsky, p.97). This midrash resonates deeply; that God extends His compassion to man and woman equally. This reinterpretation of halacha in parshat Pinchas reinforced the progressive movements of Judaism’s decision to admit women to the rabbinate. While the Conservative movement followed the other progressive movements (Reform and Reconstructionist), all three had the courage to create religious parity between men and women, and we owe this in part to the daughters of Zelophehad. Now, rereading the parsha and midrash, I see how I want compassion to characterize this stage of my life. As Jewish clergy I sought–and seek–to extend my kindness and compassion to every living creature.
Rashi comments that “The daughters’ eyes saw what the eye of Moshe did not see.” Rashi affirms the daughters’ wisdom in their request because it is based on “he had no son.” If he had had a son, the daughters would not have demanded anything. The setting of the request is also important–Korach, the rebellious person who challenged Moses’ authority, has just been swallowed up. When the daughters approach Moses, they remind him that their father was not of Korach’s party. To forestall concerns of favoritism, Moses turns over the decision to the Lord who decides immediately and asserts the correctness of the daughters’ request: “The daughters of Zelophehad spoke right” (Numbers 27:7). Like Zelophehad’s daughters, my daughter saw that a move from Orthodoxy to an egalitarian congregation would allow us both to claim our talents and passions. She knew what to say to enable me to make that difficult move.
The return to education and rabbinical school provided me a rich period of study, a time to explore my spiritual authority informed by compassion. Having completed a Jewish chaplaincy program, I know how to access Midrash and other commentaries that invite me into conversation with the past as I apply the learning to the present–I found a position as a Hospice Chaplain at the Jewish Home in Los Angeles. Visiting my hospice patients and their families, I tried to see them with the eyes of the Holy One. Now as the executive director of a pluralistic community rabbinical court for conversion, I listen to the stories of those souls who chose Judaism.
I close with three reflections: I believe active participations, across the lifespan, leads to increased identification and commitment to Judaism, and I rejoice that our progressive moments have removed barriers to women’s learning and clergy roles. I hope that each of you reading–regardless of your gender identification–have found or will find your “daughters of Zelophehad moment” when you can claim spiritual territory that is yours, that is important to your identity and your future, and that feels right. Finally, I invite you to return to texts that keep reappearing in your spiritual life; they may have a new message for you.
Muriel Dance serves as Executive Director of the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din. She is a Board Certified Chaplain and served as a hospice chaplain for the Jewish Home. Previously, Muriel earned her Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley, worked as a college professor and later as an academic dean. She also spent a sabbatical year in Israel as a Senior Educator at Hebrew University where she consulted on the original Florence Melton Adult Mini-School. She has taught Introduction to Judaism as well as Beginning Hebrew in Seattle and Los Angeles. Muriel is married, has two adult children, is a member at Ikar, and enjoys yoga and theater.