Traditionally women are exempted from many mitzvot to which men are obligated. Many modern Jews regard this inequality as problematic, and the familiar response has been to argue that women may change their status by accepting these mitzvot as equally binding upon themselves as with men. A radically different approach may be derived from the insights of a famous Bible commentator, the Kli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, 1550-1619), on this week’s parasha. In this parasha we find that the daughters of Zelophehad, whose father has died without a male heir, approach Moses with the request that he grant them their father’s portion in the Land of Israel. Imagine, just a scant two weeks ago we learned that the men of this generation vehemently refused to take possession of the land. The Kli Yakar suggests that this proves that the women indeed desired the land, and it was only the men who refused Israel. According to his commentary, the decree that this generation would die in the desert and never enter the Promised Land applied only to the men. The women were allowed to inherit the land (a conquering force comprised of an army of young men and their Jewish grandmothers 40 years later is quite an image). The Kli Yakar offers the following as the reason why men are obligated in so many mitzvot for which women are exempt: Women don’t need to be obligated, they are ready to act, but the men holding them back are in need of the extra push of a commandment. From here, one may speculate on a very different solution to the problem of women’s equality in Judaism. Perhaps instead of obligating women to observe like men, we should consider exempting men to be like women. Trouble is, would the men manage to equal the women, if given a second chance?
Rabbi Mitch Levine