There is a growing number of Torah-observant women struggling to reconcile two aspirations which are not easily joined. One is the longing for marriage and children, the other a passion for study and more active participation in communal life. There are few role models, and for many the impulse itself raises questions. Is it a holy urge, or one prompted by secular values not supported by spiritual truths?

The question is real for any woman who seeks to live by the Torah. One way to resolve the problem is to identify a scriptural passage that articulates the archetype of this dilemma, and examine its teachings for relevant advice. I suggest that the Torah’s account (Numbers 27) of how the daughters of “Mankind favors men over women. But G‑d is not like that . . .” Zelophehad presented their case to Moses to receive their father’s share in the Promised Land as inheritance, serves as an excellent role model for Jewish women today contesting the status quo.

A petition was presented by the daughters of Zelophehad . . . And they stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the princes and the entire community at the door of the Tent of Meeting, with the following petition:

“Our father died in the desert . . . without leaving any sons. Why should our father’s name be disadvantaged in his family merely because he had no son? Give to us a portion of land along with our father’s brothers.”

Moses brought their case before G‑d.

G‑d spoke to Moses, saying: “The daughters of Zelophehad speak rightly. Give them a hereditary portion of land alongside their father’s brothers. Let their father’s hereditary property thus pass over to them.

“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If a man dies and has no sons, his hereditary property shall pass over to his daughter . . .” (Numbers 27:1–9; trans. Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah).

There are many teachings in this passage, relevant both to women seeking halachic (Torah legal) support for change and to the rabbis who are ruling on their questions. It suggests an approach that, if conscientiously adopted by both parties, will keep peace below and draw grace from Above. This article explores both perspectives.

Guidelines for Petitioners

When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the land was being divided among the tribes but not among the women, they convened to discuss the matter. They said, “G‑d’s mercy and compassion is not like the compassion of mankind. Mankind favors men over women. G‑d is not like that. His compassion extends to men and women alike . . .” (Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas 27; Sifri, Numbers 27:1)

They identified the underlying spiritual principle being violated. Deep inside, something did not feel right, and they named it. Because they were focused on truth and the higher good, they had the strength to persist through inner and outer resistance.

The daughters of Zelophehad were wise women, for they presented their petition at the right time. (Talmud, Bava Batra 119b; Midrash Rabbah, Numbers 21:11)

They did not raise theoretical issues. Rather, they waited until the moment of practical decision and spoke their piece. We learn from them that there are two criteria of truth. Its content must be accurate, and it must be spoken at the right time. When both conditions are met, the heavens and the earth will open to receive it.

The daughters of Zelophehad understood that timing is deeply intuitive. From their example we derive an essential principle of social action: one must wait for the right moment to correct an injustice.

There are three reasons for this:

  1. The “offending principle” may dissipate on its own.
  2. The individual who felt oppressed by the offending concept might find, as her life unfolds, that the issue becomes irrelevant.
  3. Change might occur naturally at the moment of contact.

The daughters of Zelophehad were learned women. They presented their petition in a logical and halachically sophisticated manner. (Talmud and Midrash, ibid.)

After identifying the larger spiritual frame, they supported their petition with halachic principles and precedents. They built an argument that was true to the letter and spirit of authentic discourse.

Its content must be accurate, and it must be spoken at the right time

Their petition followed a razor-sharp line of reasoning that incorporated all the relevant laws and principles, and even formulated the proper decision. This is why Scripture says, “And Moses brought their judgment before G‑d”—their judgment, not their question, for their petition included the legal argument and its ruling. (Anaf Yosef commentary on Ein Yaakov, Bava Batra 119b)

And finally,

They trusted [the Aramaic term used, urechitzu, is from the same root as rachatz, to wash] in the Merciful One, the Master of the world . . . and came before Moses . . . and the entire congregation at the entrance to the Sanctuary. (Targum Yonatan, Numbers 27:1)

They gave the matter up to G‑d, and cleansed themselves of attachment to anything less than truth. Although they wanted a favorable outcome, they didn’t want it against G‑d’s will.

This is the most critical step in the whole process. The purity of one’s will for truth determines the success of all subsequent stages. The more one renounces a personal agenda, the greater divine assistance one gains.

To “come clean” is to surrender all control, “entrusting the entire matter to the Merciful One, the Master of the world.”

Although reluctant to appear in public, Zelophehad’s daughters overcame their natural modesty because their question was fundamental. (Tiferet Tzion, Numbers 27:2)

The daughters of Zelophehad were living out a part of the written Torah, and wanted it to be accepted into the text. There is no holier mission than to reveal a Torah law that will influence the behavior of Jews till the end of time. The explication of beautiful insights is a blessed task, but to be the source of one of the 613 mitzvot is the highest possible honor.

Though the written Torah is fixed and final, the Oral Torah is constantly evolving. Each generation has new technologies and cultural phenomena with halachic implications that have not yet been explored. The process of formulating questions and generating halachic discourse is the lifeblood of the Jewish people. The daughters of Zelophehad are role models for this labor of applying Sinaitic law to contemporary situations. Every Jew in every generation has a part to play in this process of the evolution of the Oral Tradition.

The Midrash records the following dialogue between the daughters of Zelophehad and Moses:

Daughters: Give us a portion of the land along with our father’s brothers.

Moses: It is impossible for a daughter to inherit.

Daughters: Why?

Moses: You are women.

Daughters: Then let our mother enter into yibbum (levirate marriage—as is the law with the wife of a person who died “without seed”) and conceive an inheritor that way.

Moses: Impossible. Once there are children, yibbum is not possible.

Daughters: You are contradicting yourself, Moses. Either we are not “seed” and the obligation of yibbum applies to our mother, or we are “seed” and can inherit the land ourselves.

In that moment they convinced Moses. When he heard the justice of their complaint, he immediately presented their case before G‑d. (Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas 27)

The daughters of Zelophehad did not back down when encountering resistance. Moses said “no” at least three times before he conceded the logic of their position.

Similarly, a convert is refused three times. Only candidates who are driven by the non-negotiable truth of their soul will find the motivation to overcome the obstacles and claim their place among the Jewish people.

The more one renounces a personal agenda, the greater Divine assistance one gains

Every new concept or halachic decision to become part of Torah is a “convert” of sorts. A new spark is seeking entry into the community of Israel. It, too, will be refused at least three times, but eventually it will find its way in, for no spark is ever permanently exiled. Every truth will find its way back to Torah.

“The daughters of Zelophehad speak rightly . . .” Rashi explains that G‑d was saying: “[As the daughters of Zelophehad spoke it,] so is this section of Torah written before Me on high.” This informs us that their eyes saw what the eye of Moses did not see. (Rashi to Numbers 27:7; Targum Yonatan ibid.; Yalkut Shimoni ibid.; Sifri ibid.)

Moses is the greatest prophet who ever lived, and yet the daughters of Zelophehad saw something that he did not see. Each soul comes into the world with its own unique aspect of truth. Chassidic master Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen writes that every Jew has a part of the Oral Torah—whether it is an actual law, or a particular application of a law—that becomes revealed only through the singular circumstances of his or her life (Likkutei Maamarim, pp. 80–81; Yisrael Kedoshim, p. 152).

There is a creative tension between the people and its leaders. On one hand, we defer to the wisdom of our elders; yet on the other, we may know something that they do not, because it is our piece of the Torah. When that happens, we have no choice but to engage in respectful dialogue, following the model of the daughters of Zelophehad, who found the way to transform personal wisdom into Oral Torah.

The daughters of Zelophehad were righteous women. They did not marry until they were forty years old. They waited for suitors worthy of them. (Talmud, Bava Batra 119b; Bamidbar Rabbah 21:11; Yalkut Shimoni ibid.)

Every choice has consequences, and sometimes, though the costs outweigh the gains, integrity requires that we take that path.

G‑d creates each soul with specific talents, for He wants certain revelations to come through them.

The daughters of Zelophehad developed themselves in ways that would narrow their options of finding appropriate marriage partners. Their exceptional intellect and integrity put them in a category that was not easily matched. And yet, our sages call them righteous because they refused to waste the precious gifts that G‑d had given them.

Lessons for the “Gatekeepers”

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad also has lessons for the rabbis, who are the gatekeepers, those responsible for selecting which changes enter and which do not. Some of these teachings are discussed in Midrashim (hermeneutic literature) and commentaries, while others are surmised by the absence of negative comment.

Conspicuously absent is any criticism from Moses, or later commentaries, regarding the gender appropriateness of their action. No one even hints that the daughters of Zelophehad stepped out of bounds when they came before the entire congregation and publicly presented their petition to Moses and the elders.

The faith and intellectual strength of women is a resource we cannot squander

Also conspicuously absent is any indication that the rabbis were personally threatened by the assertiveness or intellectual prowess of Zelophehad’s daughters.

The contrast is poignant. While the men were calling for mutiny, abandoning Israel and preparing to turn back to Egypt (Numbers 14:4), the daughters of Zelophehad kept their sights forward and asked for their own portion of the Land.

The Midrash tells us that when Moses questioned their strength of faith, they said (paraphrasing Psalms 119:126): “When the people are abandoning Your Torah (i.e., the men are turning back to Egypt), it is time to intensify commitment to the service of G‑d.”

The Midrash then gives an example that supports the principle which was cited by the daughters of Zelophehad. The story concerns a young Jewish woman captive who became the maidservant of a Syrian general. Her knowledge of the detailed laws of leprosy became a means to sanctify G‑d’s Name. The Midrash wonders how this woman became so educated in such an esoteric matter of law, especially at a time when even the men had abandoned learning. It replies that she learned in her father’s house that “when the people are abandoning the Torah, [one makes use of every resource at one’s disposal—including the women’s abilities—to strengthen the remnant] that holds strong to the service of G‑d.” (Sifri Zuta 27:1; Yalkut Shimoni ibid.)

A parallel can be found with our own times. Since we are now in a time of national crisis, with Jews assimilating at a frighteningly rapid rate, the faith and intellectual strength of women is a resource we cannot squander. There are women in this generation who are deeply rooted in love and fear of G‑d, and who possess strength of mind and love of Torah that can be of great service to the Jewish people. This Midrash implies that in such circumstances, “it is a time to do for G‑d” and empower women wherever halachah permits. If a law is clear and closed, so be it. But if the law has room to expand, then the Midrash argues for empowering women to serve their people with all their G‑d-given gifts.

The Torah is teaching us the power of the righteous. The daughters of Zelophehad presented their petition to Moses . . . and Moses prayed to G‑d to concede to their request and to permit them a portion in the land. G‑d agreed to Moses’ prayer, as the Midrash says, “Moses commanded, and G‑d obeyed him.” (Maor v’Shemesh, Massei)

Because Moses so empathized with their dilemma and respected their love of the Land, he prayed for a favorable verdict. This implies that it was Moses’ prayer that actually brought about the positive decision.

If modern women felt that rabbis had this kind of empathy with their yearning for more formal study or fuller participation in community life, they would accept their decisions willingly. When, instead, they feel condemned for wanting to express themselves in ways that are deeply rooted in Torah but not typical of their female role, an adversarial relationship develops.

Moses prayed to be able to give them a favorable verdict. As much as he wanted truth, he wanted to share something with them that was objectively good, something for which he himself longed (i.e., the Land) which was not, under normal circumstances, available to women.

The Torah is teaching a powerful lesson to the rabbis of today. If they are to imitate Moses, then they must find compassion for the women who approach them with halachic petitions. Their empathy should be so compelling that it moves them to prayer: Let it be Your will that Your halachah permit a favorable judgment, a judgment that will enable the fullest expression of service for all involved.

Only after reaching genuine empathy with the petitioner should the rabbi begin his halachic research.

The chassidic masters tell us that the Torah’s stories spiral through history, so that each generation relives some particular stage in the Israelites’ forty-two-leg journey from Egypt to the Holy Land. The incident of the daughters of Zelophehad occurs on the steppes of Moab, the last stop on this journey. Thus, its reenactment in the six-millennia scale of history will be one of the last developments before the messianic age. It is therefore no surprise that a growing number of women in this generation identify with the daughters of Zelophehad and find their own yearnings mirrored in their tale.