Friday, June 28, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: Early Israelite Feminists

According to Torah law, inheritance of land and property went only to sons and not daughters. Presumably, the daughter would be supported by her eventual husband, and of course, that husband would be heir to his father.

But in this week's Torah portion, Pinchas, a man (Tzelofchad) dies who has five daughters and no sons. The daughters find it unfair that they cannot inherit and that their father's property will pass on instead to their uncles and cousins. They bring their case to Moses, who seems to agree with their concern but also be powerless to do anything about it, since he has already received the law from God. He agrees, however, to discuss their case with God.

The Sifrei, a late Midrash from the Land of Israel, explains how it was that the daughters of Tzelofchad felt they had a chance of changing a law they thought unjust: When the daughters of Tzelofchad heard that the Land of Israel was to be divided among the tribes, and not among the daughters, they took counsel together and said: “The mercy of God is not like the mercy of human beings. Human beings treat better than their daughters, but the Holy One, Blessed be He’s mercy is equally distributed to all, male and female, as it says (Psalms 145): ‘His mercies are on all of his creations’“

I find this recognition that the tradition's non-egalitarian nature reflects human tendencies and not divine desires to be quite interesting. As it happens, God ultimately agrees with the daughters of Tzelofchad, and they are allowed to inherit their father’s property.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: Holiness Throwdown

The Food Network has a show called "Throwdown" where chef Bobby Flay shows up, unannounced and unexpected, to challenge another chef on his or her own turf. Flay and his opponent both make the dish for which the challenged chef is known, be it fajitas or Pad Thai or pizza or matzah ball soup. Often the challenger wins, but not always.

Perhaps the producers got the idea for "Throwdown" from this week's parasha.

Briefly, Korach -- a relative of Moses and Aaron, and a Levite -- calls Moses and Aaron to task for exalting themselves above the rest of the congregation. After all, Korach says, all the congregation is holy and God dwells in their midst.

Moses responds by challenging Korach and his followers to what is in essence a holiness throwdown. Everyone is to bring incense and fire pans, and God will show who is holy and who not. But the result is not what Korach expected; the earth opens up, swallows him and his followers, and they go down to Sheol alive. End of challenge.

For those of us who have imbibed our country's democratic and meritocratic ethos, the story of Korach is a challenging one. The sages are aware of the problem. Because after all, we are in fact taught that all of the congregation is holy and God resides in and among each one of us. Shouldn't we have a meritocratic system? Rabbinic Judaism evolved at least in part to answer Korach's challenge by affirming its validity. You get to be a rabbi not because of inherited status but because of education and devotion to certain ideals. You get to be a synagogue lay leader the same way, by willingness to roll up your sleeves and do the job.

This is why the rabbinic tradition found it necessary to portray Korach as a demagogue. One can uphold the right ideals for the wrong reason. Korach used the language of democracy and equality. But that was not really what he was after -- he saw the use of such rhetoric as an opportunity to get himself and his buddies in a position of power instead of Moses and Aaron. He was the Willy Long of his generation.

In a later parasha, Shoftim (Deut. 16:20) we are taught tzedek tzedek tirdof -- "justice, justice shall you pursue." Why "justice, justice"? Because the pursuit of justice must be through just means and for a just cause. You can be right and still be a demagogue.