Sarah Laughed – Modern Lessons from the Wisdom & Stories of Biblical Women


Vanessa Ochs
JPS (distributed in UK by Eurospan) £14.50

In an extract from her new book, "Sarah Laughed", Vanessa Ochs explores what women can learn today from the episode of the daughters of Zelophehad, who petitioned Moses to inherit their father's estate.

I once heard of someone proposing to write a "Happy Bible," a rosy book of happy endings. In the version I imagined, God would tell Adam and Eve not to eat from a particular tree in the Garden of Eden and they would say, "No problem, we're allergic." The generation of Noah wouldn't really be evil, just a little rambunctious, and all the people and all the animals would get on the ark, two by two, and go for a lovely boat ride on a gentle lake. While aboard, they would all resolve to be better behaved. When the rainbow appeared in the sky, they would disembark in an orderly fashion, go home, get into pajamas, and fall fast asleep.

One story in the Bible needs no transformation for anyone's "Happy Bible," and that is the story of the daughters of Zelophehad. We needn't squint, stand on our heads, or read between the lines to see it in a positive light. It is quite simply a happy story of women who succeed when they join together to protest an unjust social order and bring about dramatic change without much ado. The story would have been happy enough had God come onto the human landscape and proclaimed, "Listen up: There is a law on the books that's not fair to women. I'll fix that."

What makes the story even happier is that it's about women who have the analytical eye and sense of entitlement to say, "Something is wrong here, and we are entitled and empowered to fix it." It's about women who have the voice to speak their minds, women who strategise to create a more just society, for themselves and for their descendants.

And it is a story about women being heard, not only by the highest male authorities of their time, but also by God, who advocates on their behalf. Judith Baskin, in her book Midrashic Women, describes the daughters of Zelophehad well. According to Baskin, they are "canny and competent women who trusted that divine mercy would transcend the mutable norms of a human society in which women were subordinate human beings." They were "sisters, whose control of male knowledge allowed them to shape their own destinies. . . . [Their story] epitomize[s] an untainted instance of female empowerment . . ."

The daughters of Zelophehad are elegant role models for any group of women who join together in the name of justice and equality to take on rules that were established by men and that happen to favor men. The
daughters show us how women can work together to effectively be heard in settings that have traditionally privileged male styles of leadership and expression. The daughters show us that we can teach men to recognise and respect the different but highly effective ways that women working together can lead and make important changes. (They also remind us to pick our battles well.)

After their father died, no social mechanism existed for the five daughters of the Zelophehad family to receive his inheritance or to perpetuate his name. Until the daughters challenged the status quo, all inheritance passed only from father to son. At this point in Israelite history, many of the laws had yet to be fleshed out by practice: this was the wilderness generation, a people who had been enslaved in Egypt and who, until now, had no property of their own to pass on. It was only when they were on the verge of coming into the land of Canaan that issues concerning the laws of inheritance were put into practice and were-at least by women-found to be wanting.

Erudite in matters of the law, the sisters refused to accept a practice that was inherently unfair. A law that made women vulnerable was a law that ought to be changed. They had faith in their community's justice
system and their right to challenge and change it.

Moses, seeing that this issue was larger than anything he and his colleagues could handle, brought the case to the highest authority, God. God heard the women's argument and acknowledged that the law needed to be amended so that women without brothers could indeed count as legitimate heirs. Not surprisingly, men challenged God's radically new law that made women completely equal as inheritors. To quiet the men's complaints, the law was modified: daughters could inherit, but they were obliged to marry men within their tribe (their cousins, that is) lest their marrying out reduce the tribal holdings in the next generation. The daughters of Zelophehad accepted this constraint-at least they could freely choose the cousins they wished to marry-acknowledging that in a given generation, one can push the social order to stretch only so far.

The daughters offer seven strategies for women who organise together to speak out against injustices and make change. We need to remember their strategies and continue to use them, for despite the enormous changes in status women have achieved in the past decades, it remains a man's world. Men still tend to set policies, and men in power are still more apt to heed male voices. These strategies have worked for women who have joined together for such causes as women's voting rights, coeducation, women's health care, equity in employment policies, and maternity and family-care policies. Not surprisingly, we can rarely name individual women who achieved these major changes, for they were the result of women-often nameless-working together. They put the cause over personal gain.

The first strategy: present a unified public voice expressing solidarity and resolve. We don't hear the daughters of Zelophehad quibbling in public about who deserves a bigger portion of her father's inheritance.

Did these squabbles take place behind the scenes? Probably. One daughter loved her father more, one took care of him more, one was loved better than the others, one had a sick husband . . . But the daughters aired their personal differences in private. And then they shelved their disagreements, formulating a strategy and a goal they could all endorse.

The second strategy: divide the work equally but according to the particular gifts and passions of each person. Each of the daughters presented a different aspect of their case that she was best suited to articulate; each spoke confidently out of the reality of her own lived experience.

The third strategy: aim for good timing. The daughters acted expeditiously,forcefully, and at the opportune moment. They were alert to winds of change. As soon as they heard that the land was to be divided among the tribes, according to male members alone, the sisters knew they had a brief window of opportunity to address female inheritance.

They seized the moment. Had they waited, the land would have been divided and they would have had no recourse. In one ancient legend, we learn that the daughters were alert to the benefits of good timing by bringing their argument before Moses and the tribunal precisely at the time that the issue of inheritance was already being discussed. When an issue is on people's minds and is the subject of fresh public debate, there is greater openness to hearing related, urgent concerns. When the topic loses its novelty, when people have decided it has ceased to matter, it becomes harder to get it back on the agenda. (Advertisers of items that help people control their anxieties know this well. When kidnappings are in the news, people selling security systems and guard dogs have a rapt audience. When the news shifts to epidemics, sellers of surgical masks and home entertainment claim our attention.)

The fourth strategy: be fully aware of existing policies and the mechanisms by which change happens. Being on the side of the right and good is insufficient assurance you will succeed in making social change. Most institutions fear and resist change, if only because it's unfamiliar.The daughters, exceptionally wise, knew their Scripture. More than that, they knew how to interpret it so that it could be realistically applied
to daily life. They knew how to speak within the system to support their claim for female inheritance. There was no pulling wool over their eyes.

This has been the case of the Women of the Wall, a group I have belonged to, fighting in the Israeli Supreme Court against the state of Israel for 14 years now for the right to pray as men do at the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which many consider Judaism's holiest site. It remains illegal for women to pray aloud, wear prayer shawls, and read from a Torah scroll. The Women of the Wall have not relied on male scholars of Scripture or male agents of change in order to formulate their case. It is their own learning and legal know-how that they rely on. Despite multiple setbacks, the case continues to be fought.

The fifth strategy: choose lines of argument calculated to appeal to those in power. Know your audience. The daughters didn't claim the right to inheritance in the name of justice. Had they done so, they would have been written off. Instead they said, "Why should the name of our father be done away from his family because he has no sons?" They gave those sitting in judgment a scenario they could relate to. They appealed to any man with only daughters, concerned to have his name perpetuated. They put their argument in language that the men found familiar. I know of a group of women who did this well when they organised to find a way to expel the young assistant principal of a church school-quite the misogynist-who was alienating more and more girls and their mothers each day. The women wanted him out.

They went before the priest who was the headmaster to present their complaint. He attempted to silence them, saying, "We should see this young man as a gift from God, sent to us to teach us a lesson." The women had a great response. They said they were prepared to act selflessly in "regifting" this young man to another school better able to appreciate him.

The sixth strategy: value the autonomy that having property bestows upon a woman. The women did not ask for honor or titles. They wanted financial stability, knowing that with such a base, they could be independent adults, freer of control than they would otherwise have been.

The final, seventh strategy: expect that you deserve the support and even sacrifices of your family when your belief in a cause is great. To achieve their rights (and the rights of all their children), the daughters had to spend time away from home in order to plan and present their case at the Tent of Meeting. Justifying time spent away from home and family remains hard for many women. Gloria Steinem offers a compelling explanation: "Unlike men, who are actually praised for leaving their families to fight for what they believe in-no matter how distant or arcane their cause-women are called selfish if we fail to sacrifice everything for our families or if we even speak up for ourselves." This doesn't mean that our families won't grumble about the loss of our attention, but it does mean that we can learn not to let their grumbling restrict our activism.

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