Pinchas: The Gender Question

By Ilana Grinblat

Published June 30, 2010.
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“Do big girls have bikes without training wheels?” my daughter Hannah asked me, as she rode her tricycle. Hannah knew that her brother’s bike didn’t have training wheels, but she wasn’t sure why. Hannah is three, and her brother Jeremy is six. She knows that she can’t do some of the activities he can, but she’s often unsure whether to attribute these differences to age or gender. So, she’s asking a lot of questions lately about boys and girls.

This week’s Torah portion also deals with sisters asking about gender. In the parasha, five sisters — Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirsah, the daughters of Zelophechad — approach Moses with a poignant concern about gender and inheritance. According to biblical law, sons inherit after the death of their father, but Zelophechad died without sons. Therefore, his daughters asked if they could inherit his land. Moses consulted with God, who agreed to their claim and explained that in all future similar cases, daughters should inherit the land. How remarkable that God changed the law in response to the sisters’ request — toward greater justice for women.

We normally think of feminism as beginning in nineteenth century with a second wave in the 1970’s, but this text demonstrates agitation for greater equality even in biblical times. The success of the sisters was limited; the law still only allowed women to inherit if they had no brothers. Nevertheless, the daughters of Zelophechad left us with the legacy of their courage and with divine recognition of the justness of their cause.

More broadly, the text challenges us to face the question of what legacy we leave our children. What does the next generation inherit from us — not just in terms of material goods but spiritual inheritance as well. This question has been particularly poignant for me recently. My mother passed away a year ago, and I’ve had to sort through the complicated legacy she left me. At her funeral, I said I was grateful that my mother taught me to dream big and that one’s dreams need not be limited by gender. This gift was perhaps the greatest one she gave me.

This weekend marks the July 4th holiday where we celebrate and reflect on our American values. Among the greatest benefits of living in the U.S. is the place of women relative to many parts of the world. How fitting that this week’s Torah portion corresponds to the confirmation hearings for Elana Kagan, who would be the second Jewish woman on the U.S. Supreme Court.

I feel blessed to live in a democracy where laws can and do change towards greater fairness. Like the daughters of Zelophechad, each generation must continue to work where the last generation left off.

“Yes, you can have a bike without training wheels when you get bigger,” I replied to Hannah. “Actually, when you’re six, you could have Jeremy’s bike if you’d like,” I suggested.

“No, Mom. I want a girl bike without training wheels,” Hannah explained.

“Sure, sweetie,” I said. “That sounds great.”

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.


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