September 17, 2019

Women of the Word

On a recent trip to New York, I spent Shabbat morning at The Jewish Center in Manhattan, a vibrant Modern Orthodox community. As services came to a close, the 500 congregants did not make the typical mad rush for the door. Instead, everyone remained seated, anxiously waiting to hear scholar-in-residence Tova Manzel.

A recognized expert in halakhah (Jewish law), she does not hold the title rabbi, yet has as much — and in many cases, much more — knowledge of Talmud, halakhah and rabbinic literature than many who hold that title. She is a learned Orthodox woman from Israel who holds the title yoetzet halakhah (halakhic adviser). She spent many years in Batei Midrash (Torah study halls) studying halakhah at a high level, earning certification to address issues in halakhah.

Hundreds of Orthodox congregants gathering to hear a female expert in halakhah is not something that would have happened just 25 years ago, and the modern-day credit goes to Rabbanit Hanna Henkin of Nishmat. But the ancient predecessors to the contemporary yoatzot halakhah are rooted in the Torah. Their names are Mahla, Noa, Hogla, Milka and Tirza, the daughters of Zelophehad.

Upon the death of their father, these five brave women “stood before Moses, Elazar the Kohen, the chieftains, and the entire congregation at the entrance to the Tent of the Meeting” (Numbers 27:2). They had a personal claim and a halakhic question: “Our father died in the wilderness … and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a portion [of inheritance] among our father’s kinsmen” (Numbers 27:3-4).

The Talmud (Baba Batra 119:b) teaches that this scene took place in a Beit Midrash, where Moses was teaching the halakhot of yibbum (levirate marriage). The laws of levirate marriage state: “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies, and he has no child, the wife of the dead shall not be married abroad unto one that is not of his kin; her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her” (Deuteronomy 25:5).

In light of this halakhah (the Talmud says), Zelophehad’s daughters raised a creative halakhic question to Moses: “We are instead of a son (for the purposes of inheritance), and if females are not considered offspring, let our mother be taken in levirate marriage by her brother-in-law.”

“The daughters of Zelophehad were learned, were halakhic interpreters and were righteous,” says the Talmud, prompting Moses to bring their claim before God.

What did God think of all this?

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly. You shall certainly give them a portion of inheritance along with their father’s brothers, and you shall transfer their father’s inheritance to them” (Numbers 27:6-7).

Rashi expounds on these verses: “They spoke rightly. Their claim is beautiful and proper. Their eyes perceived that which the eyes of Moses did not.”

Rashi further adds that this portion of the Torah belongs to them: “This section of the Torah should have been written through Moses, but [due to their brilliant exposition of halakhah] the daughters of Zelophehad merited to have it written through them.” I shudder to think how Rashi would be treated were he to write this today.

Zelophehad’s daughters prompted a halakhah l’dorot, a halakhic ruling for all generations, as God says: “Speak to the children of Israel saying: If a man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter” (Numbers 27:8).

The trailblazing spirit of Zelophehad’s daughters ultimately led to bold halakhic rulings among certain posekim (halakhic decisors), especially in the modern Sephardic rabbinic world. These rulings are instrumental sources that helped create the contemporary yoatzot halakhah.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Hai Uziel (1880-1953), Israel’s first Sephardic Chief Rabbi, ruled that it is halakhically permitted to elect women to municipal councils in Israel.

Rabbi Haim David Halevy (1924-1998), the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, concluded that women are permitted to serve as dayanot (halakhic judges).

Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron (b. 1941), Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi during the 1990s, authored a bold halakhic responsa that concluded: “A woman can serve as a leader, even as a great Torah scholar of the generation. A woman can serve as a halakhic decisor and teach Torah and halakhic rulings” (Binyan Av Responsa, Vol. 1, No. 65).

The title of  Tova Manzel’s lecture at The Jewish Center was: “Evolution or Revolution: Women in Halakhic Leadership.” Certainly in the modern Jewish world, the yoatzot halakhah, along with the bold aforementioned halakhic rulings, are a major revolution. But if you asked Mahla, Noa, Hogla, Milka and Tirza, they would probably wonder what took us so long.