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The Future of the Jewish Woman

July 12, 2010

From Patheos’ Future of Religion Summer Series
If you had asked women one hundred years ago what a woman’s role would be in Judaism today, I bet their predictions would be as wishful as women one hundred years from now will think mine are. What I do know is that Judaism is an ever-evolving religion, rooted in history, observance, and interpretation. As I write this article, the weekly Torah portion is Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1). In Pinchas, we observe the first documented struggle by women for equality. There is a census taken in preparation for the Israelites’ battle with Midian, which reveals that Zelophek had has died without leaving any male heirs. He has five daughters who petition Moses to inherent the land stating, “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!” (Numbers 27:4, JPS Translation)
As this is not something which has previously been addressed, Moses brings the case before Gd, and not only is the daughter’s claim upheld as just, it becomes the law that when a man has no sons his daughters have first right to his land. While this can be seen as a way of making women second rate, since the sons would still have first priority, I choose to see it as Beruriah the Scholar does — that Jewish law has the flexibility to expand to embrace women. Ironically, this portion was selected to be my Bat Mitzvah portion by my (female) Religious School principal, knowing I would someday be a leader. Little did she know how true that would turn out to be, and how much I would push for women’s inclusion in such a different way than I did as an adolescent. I now know that equality is not the only answer, and I hope that in years to come that becomes a more prevalent thought process. There are many beautiful traditions and mitzvot (commandments) that apply specifically women. I think it is a great challenge to modern Jewry to find the melting point of all these, to find a way for women to be empowered as leaders in a way they are comfortable with, across all denominations and regardless of titles.
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