Like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Zelophachad in this week’s Torah reading had five daughters and no sons. Rather than singing “Tradition,” they challenge the laws of the past that only acknowledge sons as tribal heirs.
Law and tradition unfold. Judaism has changed across the generations. Justice has demanded reevaluation. In our community, women came forward across the 20th century and said, “Why are we barred from reading from the Torah?” Many Jews, most in North America, conceded that women deserve spirituality equality in the public sphere. When a bat mitzvah in our community chants from the Torah, she may take it for granted, but I do not. I celebrate the change.
Not all Jews need to worship the same way. I respect Orthodox Jews who view sexual distraction as a barrier to standing side by side in prayer and yet, personally choose to adapt to enable equality. Hebrew University Law Professor Ze’ev Falk witnessed the opening of the Ivy League schools to women. He said to me, “Men got use to women learning with them and we can get use to women praying beside us, because women deserve to have their voices heard.” At the Kotel in Jerusalem the space for prayer for most of Jewish history saw men and women praying together. After 1967 that space became an Orthodox synagogue. Women were even harassed when praying out loud on the women’s side due to outrage over the lasciviousness of hearing a woman’s voice.
A year and a half ago, the government agreed with Natan Sharansky of The Jewish Agency to develop an egalitarian prayer section further along the Wall alongside Robinson’s Arch. This week the government reneged due to pressure from the Ultra-Orthodox parties. What would those leaders have said to Zelophachad’s daughters?