Pinchas 5779 – But on the Other Hand

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

In the 2004 Presidential campaign, Senator John Kerry said that he was for the Iraq war before he was against it. He was caricatured for the entire campaign, and may even have lost the election, in part, because he was thought to be a “flip-flopper.”

A few weeks ago, Joe Biden, currently running for President, was roundly criticized for backing away from his support for the Hyde Amendment, restricting the federal funding of abortion. Of course, those funds heretofore had gone to poor women through the medicaid Program, and so the poor were disproportionately affected by the provision of the law. Vice President Biden’s explanation – there is no need to go into it this morning –  seemed perfectly cogent to me. No matter whether you agreed with the Hyde Amendment or not, there was little about his statement or his reasoning that could be faulted. And yet, the criticism came pouring down from all sides.

It is as though people say, “Damn the facts! You must never change your mind!” How crazy is that?

A recent Freakonomics podcast centered on the issue of changing one’s mind, asking why it sometimes seems so difficult to do. Several reasons were given – ego, overconfidence, inertia and financial cost. Methods were explored that would make it easier to see an issue from another vantage point. In the end, one must look at changing one’s mind from a different perspective. Rather than a marker for lack of conviction, changing one’s mind can be thought of as akin to saying, “I’m smarter today than I was yesterday.” or, “Facts have changed, and I’m flexible enough to absorb new facts, and judge accordingly.” That’s a sign of strength rather than weakness.

In today’s parashah, we read about the daughters of Tzelophehad – Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. Ancient Jewish law called for property to be divided among male heirs upon the death of the patriarch. But in Tzelophehad’s case, he had no male children. The property would have thus not stayed within the family. This seemed unfair the Tzelophehad’s daughters. They went to Moses, told him of their grievance with the existent law and highlighted their good qualities and the good qualities of women in general, while reminding Moses of what belonged on the male side of the ledger – the organization of the Golden Calf episode, sex orgies, etc etc.

Men! It was always men who complained about the lack of food and water, and it was men who lost faith upon hearing the scouts’ report about the cities of Canaan – how they saw themselves as grasshoppers in the eyes of their potential enemies. Women were the optimists, accommodators, peace makers.

(and imagine – there are still some Jewish congregations that do not let women lead davening or read from the Torah!)

Anyway, Moses addresses Gd about the matter. We can imagine the conversation. “OK ladies, I understand your position. Now please step out for a moment, while I think this over.” He then summons Gd for guidance. After all, Jewish law was Jewish law.

Gd, of course, heard the whole argument, while of course remaining out of sight of the women. OK, so the women left. Moses called out, “Master of the Universe, what should we do? They make sense, but they are making a request that is against Jewish law!”

“You know, Moshe,” said Gd, “They are honorable, and they are passionate. And in this case, they are right! Let’s not be too obstinate here. Some of my original laws may need some revision. That’s OK. We’re wiser now than we used to be. Even I, Gd!”

“You are changing you mind, O holy one?”

“Well . . . . yes! I must admit – times have changed, not all circumstances can be foreseen, and so we must change. All of us.”

So here, stuck in the middle of this parashah, with no apparent connection to what comes before or what comes after, comprising fewer than a dozen verses, is this mini drama, in which a profound lesson is taught. This then became our earliest recorded revision of Biblical law, owing to an overriding moral imperative. This is a great example of how our laws, while reverent, are responsive.

In the introduction to today’s parashah in Etz Chaim, the editors mention how, at the end of the last parashah, Phineas killed an Israelite man and a Moabite woman because their flagrant immorality profaned Gd’s name. The Etz Chaim editors reference the Talmud, which, it seems to them, would have rebuked Phineas. In this particular instance, the rabbinic court would have said, “The law may permit it, but we do not follow that law.”

In fact, in Deut, Ch 17, Moses tells the Israelites that in a dispute over a law, they must seek the counsel of judges, who would decide on the matter . . . “In their time,” as it says in the Torah. Again, implying that the laws must be responsive to the realities of their day – the very hallmark of Conservative Judaism.

I would suggest that this legal change, brought about by the persuasive powers of the daughters of Tzelophehad, changed the way in which the children of Israel thought about women. “The Feminine Mystique” of course, was author Betty Frieden’s book from the early 1960s that is credited with starting the modern feminism movement.

Today’s parashah begins Judaism’s own feminine mystique, which is carried on in our own kehillah by the many women who take part in our shul’s life. About that, we’re not about to change our minds!