Patriarchy in the Torah? It's Complicated! Just look at Torah portion Pinchas!

Patriarchy in the Torah? It's Complicated! Just look at Torah portion Pinchas!

Queen Esther challenges the patriarchy in Gustave Dore's "Esther Accuses Haman"Torah showcases the patriarchy. Of course! It reflects the patriarchal society in which it was written.

Reflects.

You gotta love that mirror metaphor.  No mirror is accurate; each reflects a particular distortion.

Learning to use any mirror takes time and patience. In fact, it took me years to recognize the contours of Torah’s mirror.

As a 20 year old university student, I still saw life through a childish lens. One evening as I washed dishes, I reflected on how much I enjoy this chore. Warm water, playful soap bubbles. Why even when I was a child, I didn’t mind that my brother never had to wash dishes and only I…wait. Did I really do more household chores because I enjoyed them? Or because Mom assigned them all to her daughter — and not to her son?

My mind and heart raced. I had never noticed gender disparity in something as simple as household chores. What else had I missed?

Philosophy class was the study of male writers. In my typing business, women did secretarial work for men. U.S. presidents were male. Torah’s rulers and chieftains were men. Its genealogies recorded the history of men. Male priests facilitated rituals for women. A male leader wrote laws about women, and male judges applied them.

Now that I recognized the pattern, I saw it everywhere. My new vision helped me cope with wage inequality, sexual harassment, and self-doubt. Over the years, I became a philosopher, a teacher of women’s studies, and a rabbi. I married a man, and gave birth to a daughter and a son without skipping a professional beat.

That’s when I saw it: maternity leave. Right in the Torah, in Parshat Tazria. After giving birth, a woman gets 33-66 days off. She can skip community events. Recover. Adjust to her new life. Sure, the information is couched in unflattering priestly terms. The new mother is temporarily “impure.” But in the world of Torah, impurity has only one consequence: you avoid gatherings at the sanctuary.

What an amazing woman-honoring practice! And I had not noticed! What else had I missed? Once again, I looked at Torah with fresh eyes.

And I found traces of women’s empowerment. Traces. Just enough to reveal Torah’s subversive program. Its stories reflect a patriarchy in which oldest biological son inherits all. But, in Torah’s funhouse mirror, younger sons and adopted sons find ways to take their share. How do they find their way? They watch women subvert gender expectations and copy the women’s strategies.

Younger sister Rachel struggles in her relationship with her sister Leah. Eventually, Rachel says: “I have wrestled with my sister and succeeded.” Soon Torah refers to the sisters as “Rachel and Leah,” hinting that Rachel heads the family. Her husband Jacob must have been listening. Just before he confronts his older brother, he has a vision of wrestling and succeeding.

The five daughters of Zelophechad have no brothers. One day, they petition to inherit their father’s land. How do they succeed? Calm demeanor, and divine consultation in front of witnesses. Later that day, adopted son Joshua inherits national leadership from a reluctant Moses. How do they manage the transition? With tools borrowed from the women: calm demeanor, and divine consultation in front of witnesses.

Yes, Torah reflects the patriarchy in its society. But intentionally not with a flattering image. And with a quiet resistance led by local women.

Image: Gustave Dore, Esther Accuses Haman. An earlier version of the post was published at Rabbis Without Borders.

For more reflections on Parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1), click here.

2 Comments
  1. I am doing tomorrow’s d’var Torah. The argument of the daughters is _not_ a “feminist” or “woman’s rights” argument. It is very carefully phrased as a matter of _male_ privilege:

    3 “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. 4[b] 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.”[/b]

    Not “We have a right to inherit, just as men do” — but:

    . . . “Our father’s name should not be forgotten. To accomplish this, we should inherit his portion.”

    It’s a very clever way to _avoid_ discussion of “women’s rights” !!!

    . Charles C.

    1. Just one of the many reasons midrash describes the women as master negotiators and rhetoricians!

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