More than a decade ago a congregant told me that one of her young daughters was playing the game "shul" (synagogue) with a male friend. Upon deciding which role each child would play, the girl told her companion assertively that she would play the rabbi since "boys cannot be rabbis." That story took place about 30 years after Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman ordained by the Reform movement, and yet, it underscored for me at the time how quickly landmark, historic changes can become powerful lessons in normalcy. Within a little more than one generation, children were growing up with an alternative understanding of rabbinic leadership because of a personal experience that was interpreted as normative.
I was reminded of this story this week as I watched Secretary Hillary Clinton become the first woman nominated for President of the United States by a major political party. As a mother of four daughters, I became emotional as I heard First Lady Michelle Obama powerfully acknowledge that "now my daughters -- and all our sons and daughters -- take for granted that a woman can become President of the United States."
The reality is, of course, that women have always possessed the leadership capacity to become president, but American cultural and societal norms, gender stereotypes and discrimination, as well as a very thick glass ceiling hovering high overhead have prevented (and in many ways, still prevent) women from reaching the highest echelons of all professions, and receiving equal pay for equal work.
Patriarchy is as old as time itself, and pioneering efforts to shift the paradigms of roles and responsibilities can be traced back as far as this week's Torah reading of Pinchas. In the text we hear about the daughters of Zelophehad, a member of the tribe of Menashe who had 5 daughters, but no sons. The text describes how they approach Moses to assert that the laws established for the distribution of property will leave their father's descendants with no land of their own. Although the text plainly makes this claim as a matter of inheritance and the preservation of their father's name and legacy (Numbers 27:4), over time this story has been read through a feminist lens that also emphasizes the shift to women being able to retain land in their family name.
According to the text, Moses takes the case to God, who responds without hesitation that the daughters were justified in their appeal, and even more importantly, a new and permanent law is established that secures inheritance for any daughter in a family with no sons (27:6-8). It is called a holding and an inheritance. If the daughters had never asked the question, there is little doubt that such a landmark change to biblical law would have taken place.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught that the arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends towards justice. For centuries women have asked, demanded, fought, died, and have also triumphed in many ways on the road to the seemingly radical understanding that women are people, and deserve every opportunity to achieve our highest aspirations. The daughters of Zelophehad were rewarded for their commitment to fairness and for raising their voices in a quest for justice.
Hillary Rodham Clinton's nomination for President is historic and she knows she stands on the shoulders of women who have come before her, and is a role model for the women who will yet follow. It is a proud moment for America, and an especially proud moment for girls and women, for whom this achievement is a holding and an inheritance for future generations.