Religion, Sex & Gender

Parshat Pinchas: On Women, Power, Sex and "Having It All"

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 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.
Shabbat Shalom.

18 thoughts on “Parshat Pinchas: On Women, Power, Sex and "Having It All"

  1. Random question.. can a havurah that uses musical instruments on the sabbath really be called “trad-egal”? As far as I can tell that label was staked out by minyans with a relationship to halacha that precludes instrumentation, and neither Kol Zimrah NY nor Tikkun Leil Shabbat DC (which do use instruments) call themselves “trad-egal”. Perhaps “full classic liturgy with musical instruments and egalitarian participation” would be more accurate. In fact, I think both National Havurah Institute & LimmudNY reserve the label “trad-egal” for minyans that don’t use musical instruments on shabbat.

  2. Grear Dvar Torah. Very thought provoking. But Cozbi and Zimri weren’t killed just because they were engaged in an act of interfaith fornication. Rather it was because they had public sex in sight of the Tent of Meeting. This represented a provocative act of defiance against God and Moses and while it isn’t pretty, it’s kind of understandable. As far as Cozbi is concerned, I’d hate to deprive her of agency. As a daughter of a prominent Midianite, I doubt she was a common prostitute used to performing public displays of uh… Affection. I am assuming she was in on it and was making a statement, urging the Israelites to abandon their God. That turned out to be a fatal error in judgement… What’s also interesting is that the Midianites didn’t just worship Ba’al. They also worshipped Ashera who was both the mother of Ba’al and his incestuous wife. A major part of Asherah worship involved cult prostitution. Not common prostitution btw. If so then Cozbi and Zimri’s act may be seen as doubly provocative – Zimri wasn’t just having sex, he was engaged in an act of worship of a pagan Godess with a priestess. Anyhow, I could go on and on, but the seduction of Israelite men by Midianite women needs to be put into context.

  3. It’s always awesome to see your college friends teaching Torah in all sorts of interesting forums. While i might be a bit more Conservative on sexual mores-ie I wish everyone would see sexuality as a Divine gift and try to keep it in holy relationships, I think this is really fascinating. Note-in the second jewish catalog ( Rabbi) Art Green wrote an interesting article about a sliding scale of jewish sexual values. I also very firmly believe that my religious views on sexuality should not interfere with others choices. I firmly believe that reproductive rights should be accessible and affordable for all regardless of religion, sex, sexuality, etc etc. As a privileged male, I don’t believe women should be unfairly saddled with childbearing responsibilities against their will.
    After reading this Amy, I am curious on your thoughts on this week’s parsha and vows. Patriarchal overload that a husband can annul his wife’s vow or brilliant loophole for women to get their husband’s to cancel accidental vows?
    I also find it interesting that the comments so far about the minyan rather than the content of the article!

  4. How does Baal Peor fit into this? Wasn’t that the context for the whole Midyan encounter in the first place?

    1. chillul Who?- I’ve never seen instruments at the “trad-egal” minyan at NHC (on any day of the week); have you?

  5. This, indeed, is a parsha about “good girls” and “bad girls”. But if we are to define “good girls” as victims of patriarchy, then it truly is the Midianite women who take the prize. The sexuality of Midianite girls was used as a weapon, a tool in the hands of the men who ruled them, who owned their bodies, and they obeyed, every one, down the the very princess of Midian – Cozbi herself! These women were not prostitutes – they were “good girls” who zealously fulfilled the will of their fathers.
    On the other hand, we have the Jewish sisters, the really really bad girls, the revolutionary, counter-cultural, “just-won’t-shut-their-mouths and go with the flow” girls. Deprived by Jewish law, a law handed down by G-d (by G-d!), of what they felt was rightfully theirs, they protested the injustice. But what’s more, they educated themselves, rose above their established status in society and bested the sages of Israel, the men of Israel, on merit – on the purity of their hearts and the righteousness of their cause.
    Here’s to the bad girls! But there’s more here. So much more…
    Cozbi was a woman who used her body, her sexuality, as a weapon. Hers was not an act of love, but an attempt to hurt and wound another human being, as deeply and profoundly as possible. Cozbi woke up one day and set it as her goal to spiritually cripple another person, to condemn them to suffering (and to death, literally). True, she didn’t make the choice – the men in her life made it for her – but she didn’t protest this barbarity, she enjoyed it. Hers was an act of violence, of the most base lack of compassion and empathy. To perform this act of pure hatred, she chose to use her body, and not a sword, but only because her father and Balaam had instructed that using her body would cause their enemy (the Jewish people, and in particular Moses, Cozbi’s original target) a greater tragedy.
    It takes a special kind of person to find virtuosity in this behavior. Certainly not the message I will be teaching to my children, one day.
    The essential question which comes to mind after reading this dvar torah is: Should role models be people whose behavior we strive to emulate, to rise to, or those who affirm our actions and make us feel more comfortable about our own deeds, and misdeeds?
    If an individual reading this feels empowered by hurting others through sex, and finds comfort in seeing Cozbi do the same, please talk to someone who loves you and can explain why that’s wrong.

  6. BZ – Correct me if I’m wrong, but Mincha-Maariv is almost always part of the trad-egal davenning set, and that includes Musical Maariv.

    1. I don’t think Musical Ma’ariv has been labeled as trad-egal. In some years, mincha/maariv have gotten no labels (except for Musical Maariv), and in other years, the non-musical ones have been labeled trad-egal.

  7. Since I got nothing else to do at this hour, I looked up the ’09 and ’10 ‘TUTE davenning sheets. Mincha and maariv are not labeled as “trad egal” on the schedule chart, but are defined as “the traditional afternoon and evening services” in the prayer format descriptions, with a note that the musical maarivs will feature instrumental accompaniment.

    1. Based on this, my guess is that “the traditional afternoon and evening services” is someone’s English “translation” of “mincha/maariv”, rather than a description of what style these particular mincha/maariv services would be in.

  8. Operative word being “traditional”. Otherwise it would just say “afternoon/evening services”, since there are plenty of non-traditional (morning) services.

    1. I can’t say for certain what the person who wrote this had in mind, but if you google mincha “traditional afternoon service”, you get a number of hits that use “traditional afternoon service” as a translation/definition of “mincha”, apparently not attempting to distinguish “traditional” and “non-traditional” prayer styles, but just indicating that mincha is the service that traditionally takes place in the afternoon. (It would not be traditional to do shacharit in the afternoon.) Some of these hits are from Orthodox sites, but one describes a “daven-in” at a ’60s protest in which Arthur Waskow participated, and another announces a shiva minyan for someone who belonged to a Reform congregation.
      (For the record, this isn’t how I would translate “mincha”!)

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