Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What is "Jewish law" anyway? / Parshat Pinchas

Do you know who Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah are? We meet them in this week’s parashah, Pinchas, and they are also mentioned in Numbers chapter 36 and Joshua chapter 17. They are sisters, the daughters of Zelophehad, who died without having left a son to inherit his land.
The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family – son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph – came forward. The names of the daughters were Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korach’s faction, that banded together against Adonai, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Do not let our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen! (Numbers 27:1-4)
Until this point, the land of a man who died without having sired sons would pass to other male relatives, passing over his daughters entirely. Zelophehad’s daughters approach Moses to appeal the inheritance laws they consider unjust. Moses, in turn, appeals to God, who responds favorably:
The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them. Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a householder dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter. If he has no daughter, you shall assign his property to his brothers. If he has no brothers, you shall assign his property to his father’s brothers. If his father had no brothers, you shall assign his property to his nearest relative in his own clan, who shall inherit it.’ This is the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with Adonai’s command to Moses. (Numbers 27:6-11)
This is an inspiring account. Here are five women, disenfranchised by the rules of inheritance, who bring their case to Moses. Moses appeals to God, and God responds by revising the law to correct – at least partially – its intrinsic injustice.

To me this suggests that Jewish law is not immutable, fixed for all time, and beyond human touch. To be a genuine reflection of the human-divine covenant, it must be flexible, pliable, and able to respond to human needs and the demands of justice and compassion. I have heard the response, “But it was God who amended the law, not Moses, and certainly not lesser mortals.” I am not impressed by this response.

Rabbinic tradition – the Oral Torah itself – is predicated on the notion that scholars immersed in Scripture and Mishnah, employing the best of human reason, and endowed with a keen sense of justice and compassion, can arrive at halakhic decisions that are accepted by the community as the “will of God.” At least most of the time. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they recognize that there are differing and even contradictory legitimate possibilities. And sometimes they are creative, using sacred text to build something new laws on the foundation of Jewish values and sensibilities: Hillel’s prosbul (tractate Gittin) to protect the poor, and the rabbinic value of tza’ar ba’alei chaim (the prohibition against causing pain and suffering to an animal – tractate Baba Metzia) are examples that jump to mind.

Halakhah is a term we often translate “Jewish law” but I think it’s a deceptive and misleading translation because it suggests that Jewish law is fixed for all time, immutable and unswerving. Halakhah means “walking” or “going” or “proceeding.” It conveys movement, a sense of response by those who seek to follow God’s way and do God’s will. Indeed, if our way of being Jewish in the world – of determining the path we should follow – cannot incorporate all that we learn along the way (science, psychology, history, and ethics are just the beginning), as well as our growing and evolving theologies and spirituality, it is not in my mind genuine halakhah. It is merely a set of rules (“permitted,” “forbidden”) and not an organic response to God in our lives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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