Rabbi Rachel Smookler
In 2008, we were living in Japan. It was pretty amazing. Even all those miles away from home, to think that back in my home country, such incredible strides were being made. Seeing as though I was living in a country where as a woman, I couldn’t even deposit a check into the bank. I couldn’t even get my phone fixed unless my husband came with me. And yet, I was The Chief Rabbi of Japan!
And I think of this story every time I think of Hilary Clinton running for President.
But this was eight years ago. When she was campaigning, she didn’t end up winning enough votes to be the Democratic Presidential Nominee. But…there I was in Japan, knowing that back home, in the Good old USA, a woman was running for president. And I couldn’t deposit a check or get my phone fixed…
Right around this time, I was serving as the Rabbi to the Jewish Community of Japan. It was a Saturday morning and I was the first person at shul that morning. A few minutes later, a man I had never seen before came into the sanctuary. I welcomed him and I could tell he was from France. There were Jews from all over the world in Japan. I never knew who would walk through the synagogue doors on any given Shabbat.
Jews traveling in Asia would frequently come to our synagogue so we always had guests as well as local members. So..when this man came in, I wasn’t sure if he was visiting or if he lived in Tokyo. He told me owned a European antique store in Tokyo. He came to say Kaddish for his father’s yahrzeit.
I told him I was the Rabbi at the synagogue. Absolute shock came over his face.
“I wasn’t aware that women could be rabbis,” he said.
He was, really and truly, horrified. I had learned over the years, living amongst Jews from all over the world, that there really wasn’t any where else in the world like the U.S., in terms of Jewish plurality. Whereas American Jews had already tested the waters and accepted female clergy and were well on their way to opening their doors to homosexual rabbis.
Jews in other countries were completely unaware of these strides and in many cases against them. What we, American Jews thought of as progress, many of my international Jewish friends weren’t there yet. And I didn’t hold that against them. Things just are not as progressive. Things just move more slowly in Europe and in South America.
And so I shouldn’t have been so surprised at this Frenchman’s reaction to the fact that I was the Rabbi at the JCJ and that I would be leading services there that morning. But I was surprised.
Imagine someone being shocked and disgusted because of your …….gender…!
I felt particularly angry at his reaction because, I thought, women were making such strides in the world. It seemed ridiculous that someone would actually be stuck in this time warp. And so I did something unusual. I wasn’t in the habit of challenging people I Had never met before about the inequality of the genders that exist in traditional Judaism. But I couldn’t stop myself.
“Are you aware,” I said incredulously, “That there is a woman running for president of the United States right now??”
He just kind of looked at me..
“Would you let a female surgeon operate on you?” I asked.
He said he would.
“But I can’t lead services? You would put your life in a woman’s hands on an operating table.But….a woman leading services….??????”
He mumbled something about having to go. I know I will never forget that encounter. How it made me feel. So confused and demeaned. It is the very reason I cried when Hilary Clinton came out on Stage on Thursday night to see tens of thousands of people standing on their feet, cheering, screaming.
As a rabbi, I don’t formally endorse candidates or try to push politics on people. And I speak to you today…NOT about political ideology. But as a woman who has been looked at with disdain, and disgust…As if….I didn’t have the right to be standing there. Doing what I was trained to do. That’s all…not politics, but rights.
I guess it’s hard to understand that feeling if you’ve never experienced it. Hard to be blown away and excited, unless you understand the road it took to get there. Because as I see it, when Hilary Clinton walked out onto that stage, it wasn’t just Hilary walking out. It was EVERY woman…..walking out there.
I feel the exact same way when I read this week’s Torah portion. Parshat Pinchas. I find it pretty incredible and unbelievable that this week…THIS WEEK…The Democratic national Convention coincided with Parshat Pinchas.
For in it we read about geneology after geneology. A census taken of the descendants of the Israelites who came up out of the land of Egypt. Each tribe, each clan, listed by their male offspring. It doesn’t come as a surprise. This is the way the Torah has always counted the Israelites. Except……At the very end of the census, a sentence begins:
The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family—son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph—came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the LORD, but died for his own sin; 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 holding among our father’s kinsmen!”
Moses brought their case before the LORD, and the LORD said to Moses, “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.
“Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter. This shall be the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with the LORD’s command to Moses.”
So here’s what’s interesting about this story. Each daughter is named: Machla, Noa, chogla, Milcah, and Tirtzah. But Zelophechad’s lineage too is named, tracing him all the way back to Joseph. As you know, the Torah doesn’t waste space. The fact that each daughter’s name is written down gor all time, and that they are traced back to Joseph.
The Torah is telling us that this is indisputable. That future generations need to pay attention to this. And that it can’t be ignored or sidelined. They have names. They have tribal territorial rights.
Do you know what else is fascinating about this story, that leaps off of the parchment amidst columns and columns of male geneologies? The fact that God tells Moses not only that the daughters of Zelophechad speak right! But from that point on, the law will reflect this change. The Daughters of Zelophechad spoke up and changed the law! Not only for themselves, for all women. In Parshat Pinchas, we see history being made as it happened. We are allowed to see the process and the outcome.
The rabbis found numerous ways to heap praises on the five daughters of Zelophechad. In fact a midrash states that the daughters are also mentioned by Joseph when he brings his son Manasseh to Jacob to be blessed, telling his father, “for this is the firstborn [ha-bekhor].”
The definite article ha- in the word ha-bekhor, with the numerical value of five, the rabbis say, alludes to the five daughters of Zelophehad. According to this midrash, Joseph insisted upon his son Manasseh’s right to receive his blessing from his grandfather’s right hand, by merit of the five women who would be born to this tribe.
The Torah makes certain that we, the generations in the future, will take notice of the daughters of Zelophechad. Not by their names alone. In chapter 27 verse 5, the word MishpataN, “Their judgement, or their plea,” is written with an enlarged final Nun, no doubt emphasizing the feminine plural ending, forcing the reader to take notice, and when reading it in public, vocalizing this special ending.
For even then, history was being made. There are only 16 recorded enlarged letters in the Torah. And the story of daughters of Zelophechad, women’s rights are bound up in that super-sized final nun.
I don’t think the French man who walked into the synagogue that day knew about the daughters of Zelophechad or about the final nun that emphasized the beginning of women’s rights.
But I did. I knew the importance of having role models who spoke up for themselves and who changed the status quo. Which is why I was so moved to my core when Hilary Clinton walked out onto that stage. It really was a moment like that. Like an answer to that Frenchman eight years ago. That moment when SHE walked out on stage was a giant final nun.