The Entire Torah is Just a Manifesto for Women's Rights. Torah Portion Mattot-Masei tells us so!

The Entire Torah is Just a Manifesto for Women's Rights. Torah Portion Mattot-Masei tells us so!

Contemporary artistic image for Torah Portions Pinchas and Mattot-Masei: the five daughters of Zelophehad, looking determined to speak for women's rights Oh boy! Oh girl! Look at the opening sentences of Parshat Mattot-Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13). Women can vow to work at the mishkan. (Good!) But their fathers and husbands can annul the vows. (Not so good!) What is going on here?

A lot.

These sixteen verses tell part two of a little story about working women.

Part one was tucked away in the last chapter of Leviticus. Something about shekels and vows. (You probably glazed over it.) About what happens when you vow, in a moment of spiritual passion, to work at the mishkan — and then realize it isn’t possible to follow through. You simply buy out your contract, paying the mishkan the value of your labour. How much do you owe? If you’re a female, you owe 3/5 of what a male of the same age owes. Whether you’re a three year old helping set the table or a 40 year old helping with accounting. Because a woman, in biblical times, earns 60% of what a man earns.

Not because women’s work isn’t valued at the mishkan. In fact, management is desperately seeking women workers. This we learn in part two of our story. Imagine: you are a woman living with a husband or a father. You pledge some of your time to the mishkan. Maybe you’re moved by gratitude, yearning, or ambition — motivation doesn’t matter here. When the male head of your household hears about your vow, he has until the end of the day to contest it. That’s a short window of time. Less than one day. And if you, woman, are head of your own household, no one can contest your vow.

You go girl! You’re inexpensive, reliable, and skilled! The mishkan wants to hire you! You’re on a roll!

In fact, our little story about women’s vows is part of a bigger story about women’s economic security. Just a few chapters ago, the daughters of Zelophechad, descendants of Joseph, organize a huge political demonstration in front of the mishkan. Orphaned women with no brothers, the daughters say, should be allowed to inherit their father’s land. To preserve the father’s lineage, the daughters say. But we know the real reason. Without resources, a woman is forced to choose between poverty and a desperate marriage.

There, in front of the mishkan, Moses consults God and learns: the daughters are right. Now that they are truly free to choose, they agree to choose a marriage that keeps land within their tribe.

Our bigger story about women’s economic security is part of an even bigger story about social justice. Torah tells us who are our most economically vulnerable classes. Widows, orphans, and strangers. Or, in modern language: Single mothers and their children, new immigrants, people in transition. Members of these groups must be fed, protected, never oppressed. Torah says it seven times. But in between these bold slogans, we read about the slow process of implementation. Step by step. Case by case. Demonstration by demonstration. Gradually the laws allow single women to find employment and acquire land.

This story about social justice IS the main story of our Torah. Don’t you see it? Look closely! Each book of Torah brings its story to a conclusion. Each book’s conclusion is a chapter in the social justice story.

Genesis (Bereisheet) plants the seed of a solution. It ends with the death of Joseph, who builds his career by acquiring land for Pharaoh. What is Joseph’s final wish? To be buried in the one scrap of land his ancestors owned.

Exodus (Shemot) introduces the person, place, and procedure for solving a problem. As Exodus ends, the cloud of God’s presence fills the mishkan. The area becomes so holy, Moses is temporarily unable to enter the Tent of Meeting where he talks with God.

Leviticus (Vayikra) defines the problem. By time Leviticus ends, many people work at the mishkan. But a thriving spiritual life has not secured justice. The final chapter discloses the nationwide pay scale that keeps women poor.

Numbers (Bamidbar) brings problem, place, person, procedure, and solution together. At the end of Numbers, a group of women descended from Joseph assemble at the Tent of Meeting. They request a limited right for some orphaned women to own a scrap of land in Canaan. Moses talks with God, grants the right, and the women agree to keep their land within Joseph’s family.

Deuteronomy (Devarim) celebrates the leadership skills that made it possible. The book ends by lamenting the death of Moses. No one, it says, has ever been so prophetic, so intimate with God, and so full of awesome deeds.

You go, girl! You ARE the story of the Torah!

Read more about Torah’s solutions for reducing economic inequality.

  1. >>>
    There, in front of the mishkan, Moses consults God and learns: the daughters are right. Now that they are truly free to choose, they agree to choose a marriage that keeps land within their tribe.

    As I read the text (both Zelophehad's daughters, and the male members of their tribe a few chapters later), the deal is this:

    . . . If Zelophehad's daughters marry within the tribe, they keep the land as their personal inheritance;

    . . . If they marry outside the tribe, they forfeit the land.

    So there is a choice, and they're free to make it.

    There is a theory that what we should do is look for the _direction_ that the Torah points, not to the position it takes. And in that spirit, giving rights to women (and slaves) is a good thing, a harbinger of things to come.

    But the Jewish Study Bible says (commentary to Numbers 27:1, p. 338):

    "In contrast, ancient texts from Mesopotamia , Syria, and Egypt attest to inheritance rights of women even in the presence of male heirs."

    Maybe the Torah is pointing toward patriarchy, rather than the excessive equality realized by women in some of the surrounding cultures?

    I don’t know enough to judge this — “Women’s Rights in the Ancient Near East” would make a fine study project.

  2. Thanks, Charles! A historical study and argument is always helpful. I was thinking you might do the study project!

    In this post, I don’t mean to be making any historical claims about what actually happened — only literary ones, about how the themes and stories circle and intersect.

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