welcome to Approaching.
Approaching is a free weekly parsha newsletter, which I aim to send out every Monday. My motivation in writing it is that I want a forum to be accountable to do more Torah writing, and a space to explore and play with feminist and queer Torah. My commitment in this newsletter is that I will always include at least one source in my divrei Torah that is not by a man (the Torah, which is from Hashem*, who is not a man, does not count for these purposes), and that it will be a necessary part of the dvar Torah, not an add-on wedged in to meet the quota.
I would not be starting this work without the holy push Danielle Kranjec has offered us all with the Kranjec Test. Though it is insufficient to only teach the Torah of marginalized people without offering material support for their (our) growth in Torah and Torah leadership, trying to teach more Torah from non-men has already changed how I feel about my relationship to Torah**, and I want to see what happens when I dive deeper in.
It’s impossible for me to know how my relationship with Torah will change over the next weeks, months, or years, but as I start off, I am interested in particular in exploring themes of care, as well as spending more time on queer Torah and theology. I hope this project takes me in directions I can’t yet anticipate.
I’m calling this newsletter Approaching after one of my favorite episodes in the Torah, the story of Bnot Tzlofchad, the daughters of Tzlofchad. The story, in Bamidbar (Numbers) 27 begins with “וַתִּקְרַבְנָה בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד,” “and Tzlofchad’s daughters drew near/approached/came close.”
These named women — Machlah, Noah, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah — approach not just Moshe, but Elazar the priest, the tribal leaders, and the entire community with their contention:
אָבִינוּ מֵת בַּמִּדְבָּר וְהוּא לֹא־הָיָה בְּתוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַנּוֹעָדִים עַל־יְהוָה בַּעֲדַת־קֹרַח כִּי־בְחֶטְאוֹ מֵת וּבָנִים לֹא־הָיוּ לוֹ׃
“Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the LORD, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons.
לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם־אָבִינוּ מִתּוֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ כִּי אֵין לוֹ בֵּן תְּנָה־לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ׃
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!”
There is a census being conducted for the purposes of dividing up land into individual holdings when the Israelites arrive in the Land, and as things stand, these women will not be granted a portion because their father has already died and they do not stand to inherit him. Unlike other Biblical challenges to Divine rules or Moses’s authority, this is not treated as inappropriate or chutzpahdik, but Moshe still does not know what to do; he goes and asks God how to respond.
God is unequivocal.
כֵּן בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד דֹּבְרֹת נָתֹן תִּתֵּן לָהֶם אֲחֻזַּת נַחֲלָה בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אֲבִיהֶם וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ אֶת־נַחֲלַת אֲבִיהֶן לָהֶן׃
“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.”
God vindicates these women. But they are not simply vindicated: God takes this as an opportunity to teach Moshe new laws, about how to navigate inheritance in different family configurations. Machlah, Noah, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah’s act of courage, their declaration in front of the entire Israelite people that they wanted to be more fully a part of the community and that it was wrong for them to be cut out, generates more and new Torah.
The daughters of Tzlofchad are favorites of many feminists, and for good reason (even if later on in Bamidbar, their gain is somewhat curtailed by the requirement that they must marry within their tribe so that their ancestral land holdings do not leave the tribe).
We are so blessed to live in a time where the Divine response of “כֵּן בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד דֹּבְרֹת,” “the plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just” has rung out and been heard. So many people have increased access to their ancestral birthright — the Torah — among the Jewish people, even if that process too is woefully incomplete. But the Torah that we are given and that we create after that acknowledgement is still nascent, still being spoken.
I hope that this project can contribute a small amount to that work.
*Define “from” and “Hashem” as you will.
**I questioned if it was too self-promote-y to link to my own essay here, but it can’t possibly be more self-promote-y than starting a whole newsletter.