Yom Sheini, 23 Elul 5779
Monday, 23 September 2019
Parashat Pinchas 2013

Parashat Pinchas
Rabbi Alexandra Wright

28th June 2013

In 1972 I celebrated, what used to be called in those days, ‘Confirmation’ (now Kabbalat Torah) at the age of 15.· I had attended Religion School for almost 10 years with one year’s break, a small act of rebellion at the age of thirteen which I subsequently regretted.· With a group of friends from my Religion School class whom I had known since I was five, we led different parts of the Shabbat morning service. It was the first time I read from the Torah – the second half of the Ten Commandments – and I remember returning to my seat on the bimah of The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, where my parents and grandmother were members, with a deep sense of awe and commitment to something I couldn’t fully put into words.

From that moment on, instead of disappearing from the synagogue on Shabbat mornings, I used to attend services every week.· A combination of uplifting music with a mixed choir and organ and inspiring sermons from my teachers Rabbis, John Rayner and Dr David Goldstein (zichronam livrachah), as well as a desire to pray with the community (something that is still important to me) drew me back each week until I went away to university.

One Shabbat a few years later I was introduced to a rabbinic student called Julia Neuberger and learnt that another woman, Jackie Tabick, was about to be ordained as the first woman rabbi of the UK.· It was the first time I became aware that a woman could train for the rabbinate and it suddenly occurred to me that here was something that could unite two aspirations that were taking hold and strengthening a resolve about my future. · One was to learn more about my Jewish heritage and to be able to read our textual sources in Hebrew and Aramaic; the second was to be, in some way, useful to humanity.· How could I join together those two aspirations that suddenly felt overwhelmingly important?· If accepted by the College that had just begun to train women for the rabbinate, perhaps I could embark upon those somewhat immodest aims – Talmud Torah and gemilut chasadim (deeds of loving kindness).

With the support of my parents and encouragement of Rabbi Rayner, I commenced my studies at Leo Baeck College in 1981 and was ordained in 1986 at the synagogue where I had attended Religion School and services my whole life.

This journey towards equality of opportunity and participation of women in Jewish religious life has, it is true, mirrored the liberation of women in other spheres of life. And yet, changes for women in Jewish life began even earlier than the beginnings of feminism in twentieth century western culture.· An extraordinary passage in this week’s sedra, Pinchas documents a change in the law of inheritance, brought to Moses by the five daughters of Zelophehad.

Their father, a righteous man, has died and as they stand before Moses and the priests and elders of the whole congregation of Israel, they ask for a share of their father’s land and property among their father’s kinsmen.· The case is brought before God and in what must be one of the most significant verses in the Torah, God replies 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’ (Numbers 27:7).· It is true that the law is amended later on in Numbers 36; women who inherit their father’s share of land must marry within their tribe if the land is to remain part of their tribal territory.·Nevertheless, the courage of the women in seeking to change the law remains an example and source of admiration.

In a recent article in the Jewish Chronicle (‘Orthodox feminism must know its limits’, 21 June, 2013), I think Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet may have forgotten that passage in the Torah and the motivation that was the catalyst for change.· He suggested that the new independent ‘Partnership’minyanim in the orthodox community where women have been permitted to lead mixed services emerge not from a genuine “soul-craving”, but from a more selfish desire in women to “push the boundaries” or “ulterior motif” (sic).

It is perhaps hard to remember that the progressive movement in Europe is now more than two hundred years old and began within an educational system that sought to extend Jewish learning beyond the age of thirteen, well into a young person’s teenage years and to include young women in a graduation service marking the end of the first stage of their formal Jewish education.

The participation of women in services, whether leading prayers, reading from the Torah, becoming Bat Mitzvah, celebrating Kabbalat Torah, welcoming baby girls into the community, standing by the grave of a close relative to recite Kaddish or wrapping oneself in a tallit to pray, emerges from nothing less than our access to Jewish learning and the inspiration and knowledge we derive from it.

While I do not expect Rabbi Schochet to offer an aliyah to women in his own synagogue or allow women to read from the Torah, I wonder about the inconsistency, not to mention insensitivity and hubris that argues that when it comes to equality for women in religious practice – “they’re not getting it.”

I am not sure that Rabbi Schochet fully “gets it” when it comes to what women really want.· Would he have us turn back the clock to the days of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus who said that to teach women Torah is like teaching them tif’lut (Sotah 20a), an expression over which Rashi and Maimonides disagreed, the former understanding it to mean ‘immorality’, the latter, ‘triviality’?· Was it this severe bias that led to a prohibition against listening to the voice of a woman, thus silencing women by a curious and archaic rabbinic principle – kol ishah?· This law is derived from a passage in the Talmud (Berakhot 24a) about rules of propriety and frankly, makes for deeply uncomfortable reading, for it is clear that the Rabbis of the Talmud felt threatened and frightened by the physicality of a woman’s presence, even by gazing at her little finger, hearing her voice or seeing her uncovered hair.

I cannot help but draw an uneasy parallel between Rabbi Schochet’s exertion of power over women in the sphere of the synagogue and the often harmful control that a percentage of men exert over women in the domestic sphere.· Suppressing the presence and participation of women in the domain of the synagogue is a poor model for girls and boys growing up in a world which is struggling to eliminate the emotional and physical domination that some men, not all certainly, exert over women and to embrace full equality.

Like the daughters of Zelophehad, unafraid to confront the one-sided laws of inheritance, Jewish women must continue to challenge inequality and ensure that young women and girls are offered equal opportunity and equal participation, not only in our own Liberal synagogues, but across the board.· I firmly believe that if we get it right in the religious domain and resist the uneasy control that is exerted over women, we will get it right in the domestic and public spheres.· There is no place for emotional, physical or spiritual domination of women anywhere in our world.

I thank God for the vision, integrity and fairness of my teachers, the Rabbis who, by inviting me to participate fully in the religious life of my own community at The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, inspired me to deepen my Jewish faith and learning and strengthen my commitment to the observance of Judaism and the good that it can contribute to the world.