How Moses appealed directly to God for ruling on daughters’ rights

Rabbi Ryan Dulkin

By Rabbi Ryan Dulkin

In many years of listing to teachers and colleagues preaching from the pulpit, I’ve never heard a rabbi utter something like, “Last night I prayed, and God told me that I should do …”; the notion that Jews have a direct line to the Almighty is generally foreign to classical Jewish spirituality. Instead, rabbinic Jews have relied upon close scrutiny of Torah and its interpretation by the sages to discern God’s will.

However, embedded in the Torah itself are examples which correspond to a type of legal interpretation characterized by the statement “I asked God and the Almighty told me to do such and such.” One such example occurs in parashat Pinhas: the incident of Zelophehad’s daughters.

The daughters of Zelophehad found themselves in an uncertain legal situation. Their father died in the wilderness and left no sons. According to the law as revealed up unto then, a man with no sons stood to lose his place and property in his tribe if he had no heir to whom to bestow an inheritance. The daughters of Zelophehad bring their case before Moses, protesting the injustice of the situation. At a loss to resolve the case through judicial reasoning, “Moses brought their case before the Lord” (Num. 27:5). Moses then receives a divine oracle which resolves the issue. Scripture reports, “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘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” (Num. 27:6).

Contrast the incident of Zelophehad’s daughters with a famous narrative in the Babylonian Talmud, the debate over the “oven of Akhnai.” The Talmud relates a controversy between Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues concerning the ritual purity of a particular type of oven. Rabbi Eliezer marshals all of the textual support he can for his position, but his colleagues reject them. Exacerbated, Rabbi Eliezer resorts to miracles, causing a tree to uproot itself, making water flow backwards, and collapsing the walls of the study house spontaneously. Still, the sages reject Rabbi Eliezer’s signs and wonders. Rabbi Eliezer finally appeals to heaven itself. A heavenly voice booms forth, declaring “why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that he is correct in the law.” The sages respond with a verse, “[The Torah] is not in heaven,” (Dt. 30:6), meaning that since God has given the Torah for interpretation, we no longer rely on heavenly voices to determine the law and right conduct. In the end, the sages’ position holds since they have resolved the issue according to accepted legal procedure.

As Jewish spirituality evolved, incidents such as Zelophehad’s daughters became the exception and the message of the “oven of Akhnai” became the rule. As a people, we are more likely to put our faith in the learned opinions of scholars and subject our own truth claims to reasonable scrutiny than accept the word of a charismatic figure who claims to know directly from God what we ought to do.

Personally, this is the aspect of Jewish religious life I cherish most.

Rabbi Ryan Dulkin is a doctoral student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.