Friday, June 28, 2013

"And These Women": #Pride #Shabbat and the Daughters of Zelophechad

I am guessing that many a rabbi spoke on a similar topic last night. Here are the words I shared.

Happy Pride, y'all!!!

Marilyn Monroe.

Anne Boleyn.

Eleanor Roosevelt.

Wondering what these three women have in common?

All are credited with the well-known, if often misquoted, statement that “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”

This week, we proudly add a few more.

Tomorrow morning, we open our sacred text to read the story of 5 women, the daughters of Zelophechad. Dying without sons, his land holdings are set to be absorbed into the communal pot. Their father, who had not taken part in Korach’s rebellion, was in danger of losing not only his land—but his legacy. And so, our text reads:

The names of the daughters were Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirza. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting....and they said:…Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen.

Torah: A Women’s Commentary notes that the language here is bold. There is no polite petitionary language, no please. It is a commanding imperative: Give us.

Their case sought equal application of a right long granted to others, was appealed to the Highest Authority, and ultimately was determined to further the cause of justice. Perhaps these women too were not so well-behaved—and they did make history.
This was a week for wise women, for bold women, for women who are badly-behaved in the best sense—women who would not sit down and shut up. I felt privileged to watch—via livestream, as State Senator Wendy Davis stood—literally stood-- for over 12 hours straight to filibuster a bill that would have closed all but 5 abortion providers in Texas.

I cheered along with the thousands of supporters when, in the final moments of that session, State Senator Leticia Van de Putte (who had just returned from burying her own father), looked at the chairman and said: At what point must a female senator raise her hand, or her voice, to be recognized over her male colleagues in the room.


Photo by Ariel Levy (

And I cheered, I cried, I celebrated on Wednesday morning when 5 of our nation’s highest judges said that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment; when Edie Windsor—and her lawyer, Roberta Kaplan—was told that, indeed, her marriage was as valid in the eyes of the federal government as anyone else’s.

On March 27, as Roberta Kaplan stood before the Supreme Court to argue Windsor vs. the United States, Chief Justice John Roberts engaged her in a conversation about the dramatic change in American popular opinion on GLBTQ issues. In a piece published today—part of the words she will be sharing tonight, on Pride Shabbat—she wrote:

My answer then and my answer today is the same — what truly has driven the change we have all experienced is not the so-called political power of gay people, but instead “a moral understanding today that gay people are no different, and that gay married couples’ relationships are not significantly different from the relationships of straight married people.” That is the kind of change, the kind of tikkun olam, or repair of the world, that lies at the heart of our tradition. It is, I believe, what God commands of every individual, every community, even of the law, even of God.

It’s been quite a week for bold women.

The rabbis of the Talmud teach that the daughters of Zelophechad were exegetes, they were virtuous, and they were wise. How we know that they were wise, they ask? Because they spoke at an opportune moment.  Edie Windsor, when asked on Wednesday, said she didn’t think she was a hero, that the timing was an accident of history.

And perhaps it was, perhaps it is as Edie said, simply that: “I think what happened is at some point somebody came out and said ‘I’m gay.’ And this gave other people the guts to do it.” An article in Vanity Fair spoke of the courage of Edie and of Roberta, of others who came before them.

It’s important to not lose sight of the fact that it’s not time that’s made the difference, although time has made the real opportunity possible. It’s the coalition of allies that this time has allowed gay men and women to muster. Forty years of coming out, of getting in arguments, of shocking, of convincing, of cajoling, of marrying, of parenting, and of merely being around—that’s what led us to where we are today. Forty years of living and dying and loving and fighting.

But the daughters of Zelophechad were not just an accident of history. Their time and their place and their courage all collided, and they changed their world….they changed the world. It speaks to the power of the voice, about what speaking up means for you and the people around you. And it speaks to the power that speaking out has to create a groundswell, to create allies, to create change.

I know that I am not the only rabbi who rejoiced when I realized that this week, this incredible week, would be the week that we read of the daughters of Zelophechad. As a colleague said, though, there are no coincidences. The Torah is like a mirror... most of the time, we can see our lives and the life of the world reflected in the text.

Rabbi Silvina Chemen, the first woman rabbi serving in South America, wrote a beautiful piece for Torah: A Women’s Commentary. She writes about the daughters of Zelophechad, and the lessons we are to learn:

Perhaps the most important legacy of Zelophehad’s daughters is their call to us to take hold of life with our own hands, to move from the place that the others have given us–or that we have decided to keep because we feel immobile-and to walk, even to the most holy center, to where nobody seems to be able to go. After all, nothing is more sacred than life itself and the fight for what we believe is worthy. Thus, this parashah inspires us to discover that we too have the ability to know what is right for ourselves and what our rights ought to be. When we believe in our capacity to shape our history, to the point of being able to change even a law that came from the Revelation at Sinai, then we pay a tribute to Zelophehad’s daughters.

As the cheers erupted in the Texas Senate late on Tuesday night, a wise woman named Amadi Lovelace posted the following on Twitter. Others were as moved as I was; it was retweeted over 100 times. She wrote:

And when the walls fall, scream until the very earth quakes under their feet. Make noise. Raise your voice and don't stop. Never stop.

And, of course, we can’t stop. 

It’s been quite a week for bold women (and men, of course—we can’t forget the lawyers who argued Prop 8!). Then again, is it ever not? Is there ever not a time to speak up, to speak truth to power, to demand liberty and justice? 

We can’t stop, because we are not there yet. Just hours after Wendy Davis took her courageous stand, Governor Rick Perry announced that—at great cost to the taxpayers—he is calling a special legislative session in an attempt to ram this terrible bill through the Senate. We can’t stop, because we are not there yet. Amidst the cheers and celebrations this week, we cannot forget that an enormous blow was struck to the civil rights; the Supreme Court invalidating significant pieces of the Voting Rights Act, legislation that too many people gave their lives to win. 

And we can’t stop, because this morning, I had to sign up—for my own safety—to join Women of the Wall in a special bus on the morning of Rosh Chodesh Av. We, women and men, need to be bold, we need to be loud, we need to be badly-behaved.

We have a long way to go before we truly celebrate liberty and justice for all. We celebrated raucously on Wednesday in the shadow of true defeat and sadness on Tuesday. But we Jews know what it is to celebrate amidst losss; we know what it means to move from joy to sorrow, and back again. And so, yes, there is much work to be done. But as I heard someone say this week: Measuring the emptiness of the glass in this moment without celebrating its fullness makes no sense to me.

So in a just a moment, we will raise the kos Kiddush, the cup sanctifying this sacred day of Shabbat. In it, let us see the fullness of a week that, despite its defeats, still brought us closer to the vision of a world redeemed. In it, let us see the faces and hear the voices of the men and women who helped us get here. In it, let us see the path we must walk now, the fights we must fight, to bring about the world we imagine, the world that we are called to create. And let us say: Amen.