This guest post was first given as a dvar torah at Shir HaMaalot, Crown Heights’ first trad-egal havurah, by Amy Schiller on Friday, July 13, 2012. Shir HaMaalot meets next Friday, August 3 in partnership with Altshul at Mount Prospect Park (across street from Union Temple, 17 Eastern Parkway) at 7 pm.
Amy Schiller writes about politics, feminism, philanthropy and pop culture. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Salon, Alternet, Heeb, and other publications. She previously worked for five years as a political organizer and non-profit fundraising consultant. You can read more at amybessschiller.com and follow her at @justaschill.
I want to start with a disclaimer that this d’var Torah contains references to adult content and is recommended for mature audiences. And if you think I’m being gratuitously provocative, let me assure you that the Torah started it. But we’ll get to that momentarily.
This week’s parsha, Pinchas, contains a great proto-feminist anecdote, the story of the daughters of Tzelophechad — Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirtzah. To summarize, Tzelophechad dies with no male heirs to receive his portion of land in the Promised Land. His daughters go to the tribunals to plead their case, that they should inherit their father’s share in the absence of any sons to claim it. Their case is decided favorably, with God instructing Moses that they are indeed entitled to the land inheritance. Rashi praises these five women, noting they are each named individually to reflect their stature and righteousness. Furthermore, Rashi notes that their legal arguments were of such strength and quality that they perceived the Torah with greater acuity than Moshe himself. So here we have a success story of women’s agency, intelligence and early strides towards equal citizenship within the Jewish people. This interpretation is popular, affirming, and uplifting — and it is not the dvar Torah I can give tonight.
Pinchas is an important parsha for feminists, but more for the narrative that it marginalizes and the woman it vilifies than the women it praises. I refer here to the story of Princess Cozbi, whose story is arguably more central, as the parsha is named for her killer. Cozbi had an affair with an Israelite, Zimri, and as they were caught in an intimate act, Pinchas took justice into his own hands and (I could not make this up) throws his spear, which – ahem – penetrates them both, killing them both instantly. For this act, Pinchas is blessed by God and made a priest of Israel.
Pinchas’s act was, to be fair, not a one-off decision, for there were many affairs between Midianite women and Israelite men which had provoked God to bring a massive plague. Some interpretations claim the Midianites were prostitutes, some claim they were mercenary seductresses attempting to lure Israelite men away from monotheism. Now, it is entirely possible that the Midianites had nefarious motives, but I would also say that the sexuality of women, particularly women of different tribes or races, is used as justification for punishment, fear, and shame often enough that we should read those interpretations with some healthy skepticism.
But I want to focus on the individuals discussed by name in this parsha, since the choice to list people by name is, as we know, always significant – Pinchas, Cozbi and her counterparts Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah, the daughters of Tzelophechad. We know very little about Cozbi, only that she is a woman killed for having sex with someone who should have been forbidden to her. The relationship of her story to the story of the daughters of Tzelophechad only becomes clear when you realize that this is a parsha about “good girls” and “bad girls,” a distinction that rests entirely on whether or not women concede to the policing and disciplining of their bodies and sexuality.
There is a wrinkle to the feel-good story about the five daughters. To claim their inheritance, they must agree to marry men within their own tribe, so that eventually the land they inherit stays in the “family,” broadly speaking. This proviso renders their legal and economic victory rather hollow, for it comes at the expense of their marital, and therefore their sexual autonomy. They no longer inherit property as their own economic agents but rather as placeholders and stewards until a suitable man among their tribe can incorporate their land into the standard male-ownership framework.
The daughters of Tzelophechad do everything right, play by the rules, strike a blow for equality, but ultimately they are granted a very narrowly defined reward that ends up reinforcing patriarchal systems of control. Meanwhile Cozbi, notably a woman of a different race, flagrantly defies sexual mores, and is not only killed for her crime but her killer is rewarded with elevated status.
These are not two stories, but one larger narrative that continues quite robustly in the present day. The liberation of the daughters of Tzelophechad, their ability to inherit wealth that is rightfully theirs and theirs alone, is contingent on our willingness to see the solidarity of that struggle with Cozbi’s right to live. With each one of these women having the right to choose her partners freely, without forfeiting life or liberty.
Consider the two major, seemingly parallel conversations about women in public life that currently dominate our public discourse: one, whether women who are smart and hardworking, who play by the rules and achieve great success can ultimately “have it all” meaning a demanding career and a thriving family. The second conversation is about women’s right and access to birth control and abortion, which impacts all women but most directly affects women of color and of low economic resources. Women who cannot afford, for example, to pay for birth control outside of their insurance plans.
What this parsha and its two women-centric stories tell us is that these are not parallel conversations, and Cozbi and the daughters of Tzelophechad are not separate cases with distinct lessons. Today’s Noas Milcahs and Tirtzahs would be rising partners at law firms or government officials, writing cover articles for The Atlantic entitled “Why Can’t Daughters Inherit It All?” When we ask whether educated, upper middle class women can “have it all” it presumes that the “all” is a socially sanctioned version of both a career and a family – time-intensive jobs; heterosexual, nuclear families. But if we accept the choice presented to these women in the Torah – you only deserve equal rights if you play by the rules for your gender, otherwise you will be put to death – then we dishonor the legacy of both Tzelophecad’s daughters and Cozbi.
Jewish feminism must expand beyond the feel-good story that ultimately reinscribes masculine ownership of not just property but women’s bodies. It must go further and say, we deserve the right to have or not have children at the times of our choosing, we deserve the right to sleep with the ones we desire, and forfeit nothing as Jews or as citizens in the process. Jewish feminism must make the claim that Cozbi deserves to live. Because when we celebrate the good girls and marginalize the bad girls, we miss the real question. It’s not whether WOMEN can have it all – but whether society can have ALL of a WOMAN.