So tonight we complete the Book of Numbers – and we come to the end of our story. Oh, I know, we have the entire book of Deuteronomy still to come in the Torah-reading cycle that takes us to Simchat Torah in the fall. But Deuteronomy is Moses’s final discourse to the people – his chance to put his spin on his 40 years of leadership, his failures and his successes, his frustrations and his exaltations. The story of us, of the Israelites in the wilderness, really ends this Shabbat.
The redactors of the Torah could have ended this saga in so many different ways. They could simply have stopped a couple of paragraphs before they did, with God’s command to Moses of how to divvy up the Promised Land among the tribes, when Joshua led them across the Jordan River. But no. Instead of bringing down the curtain with the children of Israel being given their freedom, the book of Numbers ends here with Israel’s women being deprived of theirs.
We first met the five daughters of Zelophechad a couple of weeks ago, after the failed coup attempt led by the Levite Korach, when they went to Moses to plead for the inheritance of their father. The law apparently presumed sons would inherit their father’s property – but Zelophechad had none. “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korach’s faction . . . but died for his own sin,” the daughters tell Moses. “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 is thrown for a loop and goes to God for guidance. And God wholeheartedly supports the sisters’ demands and even establishes a new and permanent law that allows daughters to inherit in such circumstances.
You’d think that, if God says so, that would be the end of it. But apparently not: Now it’s the daughters who are thrown for a loop, as Moses invokes God’s name to change the rules:
“The daughters of Zelophechad,” he declares, “may marry anyone they wish, provided that they marry into a clan of their father’s tribe. No inheritance of the Israelites may pass over from one tribe to another . . . every daughter among the Israelite tribes who inherits a share must marry someone from a clan of her father’s tribe.”
The text here says that Moses makes this pronouncement “al pi Adonai” – at God’s bidding. But it does not directly quote God, as it did before. It does not even say that Moses sought God’s guidance, as he did before. Is Moses freelancing here? We’ll never know. What we can say, however, is that Moses is changing the rules. In the very, very last verses of the wilderness saga, the Torah declares – in essence – that upholding the patriarchal tribal system is more important than the freedom of women to choose their own futures.
You know, this saga started out with such promise. The powerful stories of Yocheved and Miriam – Moses’ mother and sister – saving his life and placing him in the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter. The midwives, saving the lives of all the other sons of Israel. Strong women, all securing the future of the people. It was Miriam and the women who danced and sang, leading the people across the dry sea bed from Egypt to freedom. It was the women – “wise in heart” says the text – who gave their gold and jewels freely, who spun the thread and the animal hairs to create the tabernacle’s fittings. But then it kind of went downhill from there.
In the book of Leviticus, we learn that divorced and widowed women are tainted and unfit to be the wife of a high priest – lumped into the same company as harlots. In Numbers, chapter 5, we see that a man who suspected his wife of infidelity – even if she was, in fact, faithful – could take her before a priest and force her to undergo a humiliating, public and dangerous trial by magic. In Numbers, chapter 30, we learn that, while both men and women may become nazarites, vowing themselves to God, a woman’s father or her husband can nullify that vow. And by Numbers 31, we see that, of the Midianite women taken captive in battle, those with sexual experience were slaughtered, while the virgins were to be taken as spoils of war.
Before the people even make it to the Land of Israel, then, women’s roles and futures have been proscribed and determined by biology, by sexual experience, and simply by gender. Women are tagged as virgins or harlots – though most are neither. Power and control rest in the hands of men.
If this sounds familiar – it’s because, well, it is. As my colleague Rabbi Rick Block has written, “The disparity in treatment of men’s and women’s vows and oaths exemplifies the secondary legal and social status of females in biblical legislation, an inequality that persisted throughout the postbiblical and Rabbinic periods, and has yet to be fully eradicated even in our egalitarian era. From the perspective of modernity, no effort at apologetics can negate the injustice.”
Which makes what’s happened recently with regard to the Women of the Wall and access to the Kotel so important.
The modern state of Israel likes to tout its gender equality – women serving in the armed forces, a woman (Golda Meir) as Prime Minister at a crucial time in the nation’s history. Yet recent events call into question the state’s true commitment to equality and freedom for all, especially when it comes to women. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Haredim – the ultra Orthodox male-dominated hierarchy – not only have broadened their control over issues of personal status like birth and adoption, marriage and burial, who can be considered a Jew – but have also systematically marginalized, sexualized, and objectified women and girls in a campaign that has been especially pernicious.
Little girls – and I mean little girls — are being sent home from school for not dressing modestly enough. And their images are being erased from posters and billboards advertising things like Purim costumes – lest they sexually excite older men. Advertisements for women’s events cannot feature women. Women army officers and politicians have regularly been banned from what are supposed to be secular events like the annual national chanukkiah lighting – which are held in the men’s-only section at the Kotel.
And then there is the long saga of the Women of the Wall, who have won one lawsuit after another regarding their right to pray as they wish at the holiest spot in Judaism – only to have the Netanyahu government, which needs the support of the Haredi parties to stay in power, blatantly ignore lawsuits and legal deadlines.
Recently, the government reneged on its agreement to set up an egalitarian, mixed-gender prayer space at Robinson’s Arch, at the southern end of the Western Wall. At one point, a group of ultra-Orthodox took over the site and set up a mechitzah – a barrier preventing men and women from mixing – and the government did nothing.
Some people – including many secular Israelis – will say: The Kotel? Who cares about the Kotel?
The answer is: All of us should care.
Because the battle over the Kotel is more than just about the Kotel. It is about the treatment of women by a Jewish state that is supposed to welcome us all and consider us all equal. It’s about freedom of religion. It’s about freedom from coercion. It’s about demanding that Israel – which is supposed to be both Jewish and democratic – stop the quasi-official marginalization of women and girls of all ages and backgrounds. It’s about demanding of Israel the recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism that represent the vast majority of religious Jews outside of Israel – Jews like us who provide money and support to Israel, whether it’s through our Federation donations, our federal tax dollars that pay for foreign aid, or our children, whom we send on Birthright trips designed to cement their Jewish identities.
Withholding any or all of these may or may not have a financial impact on the Israeli government. But, again quoting my colleague Rick Block,
“It is also well to remember that righteous indignation over historic injustices, if not accompanied by a passionate commitment to continue the struggle against those that persist, amounts to little more than self-indulgence, hypocrisy, and an undeserved sense of moral superiority. Like our ancestors, ancient and more recent, we too will someday be judged in terms of our own action or inaction in combating the inequality of our own era.”
While we persist in our fight, here in our own country, for equal pay, protection of health care, and reproductive rights, we cannot forget that the struggle of women for dignity and equality is a worldwide struggle – and that includes the State of Israel, where men of rank and privilege continue to impose restrictions and wield power in ways that go back to the Bible itself. In the 21st century, principles of fairness and justice trump ancient patriarchal presumptions. We deserve better. And so does Israel herself.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin