From the Plains of Moab to Pemberley

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“He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”

-Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

If we traverse more than three millennia, from the plains of Moab to Longbourn, the Bennet family’s entailed estate in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the apparent reversal of circumstances for female heirs is striking. Is it mere coincidence that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are laden with the mixed blessing of five daughters? Probably not. Might Austen – the unmarried daughter of an Anglican rector – have recognized that the predicament of the Bennet sisters could, in fact, be traced to Zelophehad’s daughters in Numbers 27 and 36? Absolutely! In Jane Austen’s novel – and experience – which underscore her particular preoccupation with the landed gentry, there is a compelling argument to be made for juxtaposing God’s decree, granting a nachala (legacy) to Zelophehad’s daughters in the Promised Land, and “the cruelty of settling an estate away from a family of five daughters” (P&P, I.xiii).

And yet, the landmark legal precedent, initiated by and granted to Zelophehad’s daughters in Numbers 27:1-11, is soon challenged by the patriarchal determination of tribal identity and is, thus, revised to include a proviso: “Let them marry whomever they please, but they shall marry only to the family of their father’s tribe” (36:6). We need look no further than this stipulation, designed to perpetuate the male bloodline and, with it, the clan’s claim to its land, for the origin of the fee tail at the heart of Pride and Prejudice. In keeping with English common law, if Longbourn is to be retained by one of the Bennet daughters, marriage to the nearest male heir is the only means – specifically, Elizabeth’s marriage to her father’s proud, obsequious, self-important cousin, Mr. Collins. To be sure, Elizabeth is free to reject his proposal – together with her claim to Longbourn. And so she does.

This past Shabbat, the women of Lakeview, who gathered for our second Leyning and Learning program, spent two hours in our foremothers’ sandals, so to speak. Acting as facilitator, Dr. Devorah Schoenfeld of Loyola University divided us into groups of five and asked that, within each respective group, we assume the identities of Zelophehad’s daughters – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. We were further asked to consider the following questions: Was the daughter, whose role we assumed, born in Egypt or in the desert? Was she old enough to recall a life of slavery, or was a nomadic existence all she knew? Why did she wish to lay claim to Zelophehad’s share of the land? And, finally, to this end, what was the most potent justification she could set forth before Moshe and the Israelites?

Some women spoke of their love for their father. Others spoke of their love for the land. Some recounted their history in the desert and expressed their fear of poverty. I, in my role as Mahlah, would be old enough not merely to recall my family’s enslavement but its repercussions. And, for my purpose, I looked to the biblical account – to the succinct words of the daughters themselves:

Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family because he had no son? Give unto us a possession among the brethren of our father.’ Numbers, 27:4

In so arguing, Zelophehad’s daughters lay claim to their father’s name and, with it, to their portion of his legacy (achuzat nachala). Their dignity is at issue, more so, I believe, than the land; for, a woman’s social standing – her measure and marital prospects – are contingent upon her father’s good name. Hence, in the aggadic interpretation of the text, the rabbis tell us that “the daughters of Zelophehad were exceedingly wise, knew well how to expound Scripture and were perfectly virtuous” (BT, Bava Batra 119b). The daughters, they continue, stated their case in a timely manner, would not have made the request had their father had a son, and waited to marry worthy men from within their tribe. “Even the youngest among them was not married under forty years of age,” but, because they were righteous, the rabbis conclude, a miracle would be their reward.

For Jane Austen, happy endings are similarly reserved for those who earn them. So, when Lady Catherine de Bourgh turns up at Longbourn, wielding the weight of her birthright and demanding Elizabeth’s assurance that she and Mr. Darcy are not engaged to be married, she is outmatched. Undaunted and unyielding, Elizabeth is emboldened by her father’s social standing – and her own as “a gentleman’s daughter.” Thus, as Darcy’s wife and mistress of Pemberley – a Promised Land of sorts for both – she may look forward to the hope of a future far “removed from society so little pleasing to either.”

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