It’s been a rough month.
On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinians, probably Hamas operatives. In what was certainly an act of revenge, a Palestinian teenager was burned alive in a forest near Jerusalem. What followed was an increase in rockets being fired from Gaza and an escalating military response from Israel. Hardliners on both sides are asking for justice, for more revenge, and a few on both sides are asking for peace.
If anyone has a very direct, vested interest in recent events, it’s the parents of the four murdered children. Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of one of the Israeli teens, accepted a shiva call from a group of Palestinian neighbors, a very touching event in the midst of bombs and riots. It seems to me that women are often caught up in wars they didn’t start and have to deal with the fallout. Rachel Fraenkel showed more strength and grace than a thousand warriors.
But she did something else even more radical than accepting a shiva call from Palestinian neighbors: she said kaddish. You might say, why shouldn’t a mother say kaddish for her son? Why indeed. It’s not forbidden, it’s just that women in traditional Judaism don’t count in a minyan, so they’re not fulfilling a mitzvah when they say kaddish; you still need 10 men to accomplish that. But she did. And the Chief Rabbi of Israel said, “Amen.”
Meanwhile, down the road at the Kotel, the Western Wall, women are not allowed to read from a Torah scroll in a service. The “Nashot Hakotel,” Women of the Wall, still try, every month for Rosh Chodesh, to have a peaceful service there. They have been spat upon, yelled at, and even arrested, often by other women. But they refuse to be silenced.
What has any of this to do with us, as Reform Jews in the United States? Women here can read Torah, pray how they like, and be full members of a congregation if they join the one that suits them.
In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we get the story of Zelophehad’s daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Zelophehad died and left no sons, and the daughters would not have inherited his holdings under Jewish law. During a census in preparation for entering the Promised Land where holdings would be assigned, Zelophehad’s daughters went to Moses and said they felt they should receive their father’s portion. Moses took it to God, and God said, “Fine.” (Most translations render it “Their plea is just,” but the Hebrew doesn’t say that.) The daughters went through proper channels and got a ruling in their favor. They changed history.
For the Women of the Wall…no so much. They have been through every channel and have been turned back every time by the religious authorities. They have tried, peacefully, to change the system and haven’t been successful…yet. It’s likely that they will eventually prevail, much the same way that African Americans did in the civil rights era; they are up against a similarly ingrained culture.
The lesson that Zelophehad’s daughters carry to us across the millennia is this: change is possible, but it’s hard. They had to send it all the way to God, for Pete’s sake. The way we govern ourselves today is a bit different, and our channels may not go to an authority that high. But there is still much that can be done. Women’s voices are still silenced, and women are still marginalized for their gender, and civil discrimination is sometimes wrapped in a religion covering. Hobby Lobby comes to mind. Zelophehad’s daughters didn’t sit still for the status quo and neither should we. Speak up. Buck the system. Do what’s right. Don’t let it get to the point where someone has to lose a life before a little prayer can be said. Some things are so clearly “just” that even the Chief Rabbi of Israel can’t deny it.
Little things matter. People count. All the people. Give the help to the ones who need it most, to those without a voice. It’s the Jewish way, and it makes the world a much better place.
Kim Phillips is an Judaica artist, marketing consultant, and writer from Nashville, Tennessee. She wears extra silver threads in her tzitzit in honor of the Women of the Wall.
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