Justice or Just Us?: Matot-Masei 2018

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: We know that we can’t please everyone, but why do we sometimes still try? Do we feel that we can do the impossible, or are we quixotically determined to make as many people happy as we can?

What seemed to be a triumph for Israelite women’s inheritance rights earlier in the book of Numbers now is qualified as only a partial victory:

The Pitch: “The family heads in the clan of the descendants of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh, one of the Josephite clans, came forward and appealed to Moses and the chieftains, family heads of the Israelites. They said, ‘Adonai commanded my lord to assign the land to the Israelites as shares by lot, and my lord was further commanded by Adonai to assign the share of our kinsman Zelophehad to his daughters. Now, if they become the wives of persons from another Israelite tribe, their share will be cut off from our ancestral portion and be added to the portion of the tribe into which they become [wives]; thus our allotted portion will be diminished. And even when the Israelites observe the jubilee, their share will be added to that of the tribe into which they become [wives], and their share will be cut off from the ancestral portion of our tribe.’” – Numbers 36:1-4

Swing #1: “The men of Menasseh complain that they stand to lose because the general tribal holdings will be diminished if the women marry out of the tribe. After God bids Moshe to tell them that they, too, like the [daughter of Zelophehad], are making a valid point, God calms their fears by limiting the women’s choice of mate to men in their own tribe. Thus, these five women lose a measure of freedom, even though they succeed in saving their father’s name. On this not the book of Numbers closes, suggesting, perhaps, a major theme in human relationships – how to solve problems so that no one feels that he loses when the other gains.” – Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice

Swing #2: “One may point out the sensitivity Scripture shows to injustice toward women, hastening to correct it. This example, one may surmise, should probably serve as a guideline for future Jewish lawmakers who, based on the example of Moses, will listen to women’s complaints and correct wrongs inflicted upon them. [However,] the biblical daughters-of-Zelophehad amendment was a halfway reform of the law. As a general principle, to be applied legally in other cases, it served a useful purpose. It pointed the way to the future Jewish lawgivers as innovators. However, on the question of a woman’s right to inherit according to Jewish law, its outcome was detrimental.” – Tal Ilan, from Exodus to Deuteronomy: Feminist Companion to the Bible, Athalya Brenner, editor

Swing #3: “The laws governing marriage and inheritance are dictated by the economic interests of the household of destination and its male head. This is clearly the whole point of the levirate law, as also of the law governing the exceptional case of a daughter inheriting property.” – Joseph Blenkinsopp, “The Household in Ancient Israel & Early Judaism”, from The Blackwell Companion to the Hebrew Bible, Leo G. Perdue, editor

Late-Inning Questions: Is it fair to hold the Torah to modern-day egalitarian standards? Or is it better to rely on modern rabbis to incorporate new standards of equality and fairness in contradiction to Torah law? Is the Torah a document of equality, or the basis with which to create a more perfect Jewish society?

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of trying to make everyone happy, one of the more amusing experiments by legendary St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck was to allow fans at the ballpark to vote on what the team’s manager should do next. Maybe owners could do that now via Twitter poll?

Shabbat Shalom!