Image: Five sisters sitting on a beach. Public domain.
Recently I received a question from a reader asking me why I am a Reform Jew. The best answer I can give to that question appears in Parashat Pinchas:
Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.”
Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. You shall also say to the Israelites, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.” – Numbers 27:1-11
Take a moment and read the passage closely. It begins with the five women, and identifies them as the daughters of Zelophehad, with a genealogy explaining precisely who they are. Then we get their individual names.
It is a moment of high theater: the five women stand at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, the stage upon which great dramas happen in the Torah narrative. They are not summoned there; they take a stand. They take that stand before Moses, before Eleazar, before the leaders of the clans, and before the people.
Then they state their case: their father is dead. He was not a follower of Korach but died because he sinned, and he had no sons. Then they state the problem: under the inheritance laws as they stood, their father’s name would be forgotten, and they would be left without an inheritance, (therefore unmarriageable.) Then they ask directly for what they want: “Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.”
Moses has no answer for them; they have raised a problem he has not considered, so he takes their case before God. And God says something amazing: God says the women are right! And God sets out a revised version of the inheritance laws.
But this is not the last we hear of the daughters of Zelophehad. Indeed, all of Chapter 36 is devoted to the issue they raised:
The heads of the ancestral houses of the clans of the descendants of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh, of the Josephite clans, came forward and spoke in the presence of Moses and the leaders, the heads of the ancestral houses of the Israelites; they said, “The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for inheritance by lot to the Israelites; and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters. But if they are married into another Israelite tribe, then their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our ancestors and added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry; so it will be taken away from the allotted portion of our inheritance. And when the jubilee of the Israelites comes, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they have married; and their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our ancestral tribe.”
Then Moses commanded the Israelites according to the word of the Lord, saying, “The descendants of the tribe of Joseph are right in what they are saying. This is what the Lord commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, ‘Let them marry whom they think best; only it must be into a clan of their father’s tribe that they are married, so that no inheritance of the Israelites shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for all Israelites shall retain the inheritance of their ancestral tribes. Every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the Israelites shall marry one from the clan of her father’s tribe, so that all Israelites may continue to possess their ancestral inheritance. No inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for each of the tribes of the Israelites shall retain its own inheritance.’”
The daughters of Zelophehad did as the Lord had commanded Moses. Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, married sons of their father’s brothers. They were married into the clans of the descendants of Manasseh son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in the tribe of their father’s clan.
These are the commandments and the ordinances that the Lord commanded through Moses to the Israelites in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. – Numbers 36: 1-13.
Again, read closely: The uncles and cousins of the daughters of Zelophehad come forward with a new problem. God’s solution to the daughters’ problem was going to cause their tribe to lose land to other tribes. You can practically hear the men crying out, “Not fair!”
Moses again asks God what to do, and God revisits the revised decree. Now the daughters may inherit, but if they marry they must marry within the clan, to prevent the problem raised by the uncles and cousins. The daughters of Zelophehad – again listed by name, unlike their male relatives – agree to the revision.
There are several things that strike me in this narrative, but the one I’d like to focus on here is the fact that Torah law is presented as something that can change to address human needs. In fact, the text seems to be saying that God didn’t think of everything; there were some issues that the original Torah failed to address. In this text, God isn’t troubled by imperfection in Torah. God revises and then revises again until everyone’s needs are met.
I am the first to admit that this is a radical reading of the text. An orthodox reader would point out to me that humans petition and God makes the revisions; the humans don’t make changes willy-nilly. I would counter to that that in this stage of Israel’s existence, one could do as the Daughters did and march up to the Tent of Meeting and get a meeting with God. This is a privilege unique to that generation.
Later generations would deal with issues like this in other ways: one of the most famous such questions is addressed in the story of Akhnai’s Oven:
The rabbis are disputing whether a particular design of oven is ritually clean or unclean. Rabbi Eliezer, a great scholar, says, “Clean” but the rest say “Unclean.” Each side calls upon miracles and wonders, but neither side will give in. Rabbi Eliezer is supported by a bat kol, a Heavenly Voice, which argues that Rabbi Eliezer is always right. Rabbi Joshua retorts by quoting Torah, “It is not in heaven!” And a later rabbi tells us what he meant by that, that the Torah was given, and after that, the rule follows the majority (human) opinion! And then God laughs, saying, “My children have defeated me!” (a paraphrase of Bava Metzia 59a-b)
Why am I a Reform Jew? Because the Torah itself tells us that not all cases are covered in the Written Torah! And the Oral Torah tells us that not all cases are decided and final, either. Sometimes we learn better. Sometimes we get new information. Sometimes a situation comes up that needs a new answer.
Does this mean, as some critics of Reform say, that Reform Jews believe in nothing? Nonsense. I and other observant Reform Jews do our best to live Torah out to the best of our understanding, in the light of study and the whole body of Jewish tradition.
Does this mean, as some critics would say, that there are Reform Jews who use the flexibility of Reform to justify doing exactly as they please, with no reference to tradition? Sure, just as there are Orthodox and Conservative Jews who use the practice of teshuvah [repentance] as a license to do whatever they please in the moment. It’s no better to say, “I will repent on Yom Kippur” than it is to say, “I’m Reform, I can do what I want” – if anything, it’s worse, because the former is explicitly forbidden. We cannot have a reasonable discussion about these things by comparing the worst of one group with the best of another.
I am a Reform Jew. I believe that God gave us Torah along with the freedom to wrestle with its puzzles. I am not free to “do what I want.” I am free to struggle, as Jews have always struggled, to stay on a path towards holiness described by the sometimes mysterious words of Torah. I am going to be wrong sometimes; I accept that. I will do my best, informed by my study and my reflections with my Jewish community.
I believe, in fact, that the early sages – those gentlemen arguing about Ahknai’s Oven! – were doing exactly the same thing, trying to carve out a path towards holiness through the wilderness of the world. Their decisions were not always “the halakhah” [Jewish law] – as the bat kol pointed out, the halakhah always followed Rabbi Eliezer. Their decisions were what they deemed the best path at their time in history.
At our best, we do our best, whatever our understanding of Torah. Whenever I am perplexed, I return to the words of the prophet Micah:
הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
[God] has told you, Human, what is good, and what the Holy One requires of you: to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8