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Jewish Journal

Will herstory repeat itself?

Parshat Masei (Numbers 33:1-36:13)

by Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein

July 30, 2008 | 11:31 pm

With the recent on-court fracas of the WNBA, the historic presidential candidacy of Sen. Hillary Clinton and the real potential for both parties to nominate a woman for vice president, it's probably worth our while to consider where we have been, where we are and where we may go in regard to gender equality, both in Torah and in our time.

In the book of Numbers, we encountered the five daughters of Tzelophechad who took the unprecedented stand of coming before Moses and the priests to stake their claim to fairness following their father's death: "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!" (Numbers 27:4)

Moses consults God who replies, "The plea of Tzelophechad'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 man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter" (Numbers 27:7-8).

Imagine the courage of these women who chose to stand before the entirety of the Israelite leadership -- all of whom were male -- to seek out nothing more than a fair claim on their father's inheritance.

This week, in the very last chapter of Numbers, in the very last paragraph, we once again meet up with these five brave women, however in this narrative, the story takes a twist. This time, it is the family heads of the daughter's clan (e.g., men) who "appealed" to Moses and the rest of the leadership, concerned that "if they marry persons from another Israelite tribe, their share will be cut off from our ancestral portion and be added to the portion of the tribe into which they marry; thus our allotted portion will be diminished" (Numbers 36:3). Don't mistake the kvetch -- this is not about interfaith marriage, but about Israelite men potentially losing charge of property because, as we might imagine today, an Ashkenazi marries a Sephardi Jew. And what's the verdict from God? "The plea of the Josephite tribe is just....They may marry anyone they wish, provided they marry into a clan of their father's tribe" (Numbers 36:5-6).

Once again, the "ayes" have it -- or in this case, the men.

These women, whose name, "in the shadow of fear," does not describe their actions but rather the world they lived in, could not get what they deserved without somehow being limited in their rights. Notwithstanding the significant progress women have made in so many areas of Western life, we have to wonder: Will America -- will we men -- ever live up to its founder's Herculean promise of "liberty and justice for all" now for more than 50 percent of its citizens?

Consider that the Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963, making it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to men and women who hold the same job and do the same work. At the time of the EPA's passage, women earned just 58 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to the National Women's Law Center. By 2006, that rate had only increased to 77 cents, an improvement of less than half a penny a year. Minority women fare the worst, with African American women earning 64 cents to every dollar earned by white men; for Hispanic women that figure drops to merely 52 cents per dollar.

We could imagine those facts relate primarily to low-income wages, but sadly the disparity grows with professional achievement: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2007 female financial advisers earned 53.7 percent of the median weekly wages of male financial advisers, and women in sales occupations earned just 64.8 percent of men's wages in equivalent positions.

In this land of seemingly unlimited opportunity, we as Jews cannot stand idly by to the reality that if working women earned the same as men (those who work the same number of hours; have the same education, age, and union status, and live in the same region of the country), their annual family incomes would rise by $4,000 and poverty rates would be cut in half, according to the National Women's Law Center. Poverty cut in half -- think of how that would change life for everyone in America.

Across oceans, the plight of mothers, daughters and sisters is often far worse. Human Rights Watch reports that as a direct result of inequalities found in their countries of origin, women from Ukraine, Moldova, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic, Burma and Thailand are bought and sold, trafficked to work in forced prostitution, with insufficient government attention to protect their rights and punish the traffickers.

This is not to say women aren't "making it" in a man's world: We're blessed with hundreds of tremendous female rabbis and cantors, educators and executives and, according to Forbes, a global count of 99 female billionaires (caveat: the other 1,026 are men). In our homes and shuls, in our workplaces and communities, let our descendant daughter's ancient plea for justice be a clarion call to us men to ensure that we "walk the walk," turning the story of women standing "in the shadow of fear" to a herstory that values our differences while ensuring no less than equality for all.

Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein is one of the clergy at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and serves as its director for the Center for Religious Inquiry.

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