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Insiders or outsiders: women and rabbinic literature.

A NUMBER OF YEARS AGO, I INTERVIEWED FOR A POSITION teaching rabbinic literature at a seminary. The interview included an informal lunch at which students and faculty could ask any questions they chose. The first questioner was a young woman whom I shall call "Sarah." Sarah opened the discussion by asking, "How can you, as a feminist, teach such misogynistic texts?"

This question, which at the time appeared to amuse everyone in the room but me--presumably because they knew Sarah, while I only knew that this was an interview--seems to me to capture some of the most basic assumptions made about women who study ancient Judaism, about the texts that comprise canons, and about the relations between the two. Sarah assumed that I was a feminist and that, being a feminist, I could be expected to respond in certain ways to certain things. She also assumed that rabbinic literature is, at least in part, misogynistic. Finally, she assumed that my relation to the texts I was trained to study and teach was, at best, uncomfortable.

Since that day, Sarah's question has continued to occupy my attention. What I propose to do in this essay is to unpack both the question and my own responses to it. The first part of my inquiry focuses on assumptions about ways in which being a woman shapes my experience as a rabbinics scholar, now and during my years as a student. I then wish to address the way rabbinic texts portray women and the ways in which women perceive they are regarded by such texts. Finally, I want to consider and reevaluate the response I gave Sarah.

I should begin by acknowledging that I once believed that I shared few, if any, of Sarah's assumptions. I certainly see myself as a feminist, but I define feminism simply as the belief that men and women are entitled to equal access to opportunities. My feminism is the natural by-product of growing up in a home in which my brother and I were both encouraged to fulfill our potential. My experience as a child engendered the naivete that proved invaluable in later life; I was convinced that I could achieve whatever goals I set and it never occurred to me when setting those goals that being a woman would prove an impediment.

My sense of complacency should have been shattered by my earliest encounters with rabbinic literature. When I arrived at college, newly enamored of traditional Jewish ritual, I was met with comments like "The Talmud says that women can't...." or "You can't do that, because you're a woman." It became clear to me that knowledge of rabbinics represented a certain kind of power in traditional Judaism, and that given my ignorance of rabbinics I was comparatively powerless. At the same time, it was equally clear to me that such knowledge was accessible. I entered into the study of rabbinic literature with the sense that I was an outsider, but could become an insider. The terror I felt on the day of my first Talmud class had little to do with gender and everything to do with lack of skills (had my brother found himself in the same situation he would have felt equally bewildered). Day by day, line by line, discussion by discussion, I felt increasingly comfortable with what I was learning. By the time I entered graduate school, the sense of bewilderment had vanished.

Graduate school transforms an outsider into a fledgling insider. One begins with course work, and, constantly reminded that one knows nothing, learns from those who appear to know everything. Comprehensive exams, on one hand, first present themselves as long lists of strange material, knowledge still to be acquired. The completion of such exams provides, in addition to relief, a feeling that you possess a great deal of information about your chosen area of study. I took a series of oral exams requiring me to learn, among other things, hundreds of pages of Talmud. I felt physically ill the day of the exams, but when they had been successfully completed, I felt like a Talmudist. I had taken a giant step toward becoming an insider. I took another such step the day of my dissertation defense. When I reentered the room and was addressed as "doctor," I felt as though I had been admitted into the inner circles of rabbinic literature. I was one of "them" now, an insider. Whatever the shortcomings of my education, it left me feeling empowered. That which was once foreign to me is now my life's work; that to which I once had no access is now mine.

It is undeniable that being a woman shaped my educational experience. All my professors were men, as were the majority of my classmates. The texts I studied were all presumably written by men for men. The tradition of studying rabbinics was until recently, with a few exceptions, male-exclusive. That I was an oddity was driven home to me when a cousin wanted to use me to demonstrate to a friend that there actually were women who could read the Talmud! When I went to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to buy a set of Talmud, the proprietor of the first bookstore I entered suggested I bring my fiance down to select his own books; it was inconceivable to him that a woman would purchase the Talmud for anything other than a wedding present for her husband. Even today, when I tell people that I am a professor of rabbinics, a common response is, "You don't look like a Talmudist."

At the time, my experience seemed benign. I was never refused admission to a class at the Jewish Theological Seminary because I was a woman. My professors and my classmates were generally supportive. I didn't feel that the absence of female role models was a problem. I rather enjoyed being different.

In retrospect, I think I was caught up in the dilemma faced by all women entering spheres once reserved for men. All of my energies were directed towards proving myself worthy; I rarely questioned the behaviors of the men around me. Moreover, while I dedicated myself to mastering rabbinic texts and the various modes of textual criticism and interpretation presented to me, I never stepped back and asked myself whether these texts spoke to me as a woman and what they might be saying. In the absence of female professors, and, given the desire to be accepted, neither I nor my female classmates introduced into our classrooms questions about gender in rabbinics. I wanted access to the education available to my male peers and I received precisely that education, rabbinics by men, of men, and for men ... and I thought I was one of the luckiest women in the world.

And what did I learn outside the classroom? The messages were very confusing. I learned that if women wanted to be "taken seriously" in rabbinics, they should, early in their careers, avoid research that focused on "women's issues." At the same time, there was an expectation that women were interested and should be interested in topics concerning women, I was warned against giving interview lectures that focused on the study of women in rabbinic literature, but I was often asked if I could teach courses in Women's Studies. Even now, I am sometimes asked, "Is all of your work gender-related," as if such a thing would be unreasonable. Furthermore, work that I don't think of as gender-related is assumed by others to be gender-related. I have learned that if you are a woman, both men and women make certain assumptions about the kind of scholar you are likely to be. There are also a set of assumptions about power and advancement. In the world of affirmative action and the backlash it has produced, it is frightening to consider what role gender plays in one's academic career. In the same semester that one of my male colleagues complained to me that I had an unfair advantage in the job market, a male student, seeking to console me on not getting a particular job, said, "They probably didn't hire you because you were pregnant." We women scholars exist in a world where it is difficult to determine if we are paranoid or if someone really is out to get us.

In addition to shaping our experiences as students, being women influences the way we perceive ourselves and the way others perceive us as teachers. Once at a department gathering, two of my male colleagues and I were discussing how gender influences class participation, specifically, how we could encourage our female students to participate more. I remarked that it seemed to me that in my classes an equal percentage of men and women participated actively. One of my colleagues asked, with complete seriousness, how I encouraged women to participate. I told him, with a straight face, that I did so just by being there, that women in my classes probably get the impression that it is acceptable for women to express their opinions. (1)

We are constantly making assumptions about the way women are perceived. One member of a department where I taught wanted to hire more young women because he believed students respond more positively to female professors. At the same time, the perception of a special sensitivity or empathy toward students is a double-edged sword for younger women faculty members. In my first job, I was urged to be "more demanding and critical" of my students. I have also been asked why I seem so unsentimental, why I present such a "tough" exterior. How does a woman relatively new to the field find the balance between accessibility and vulnerability, between compassion and rigor, between self-confidence and arrogance?

All of these concerns reflect an ongoing attempt to understand what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated and male-defined field. To what degree should I see myself as a woman rabbinics scholar and to what degree am I a rabbinics scholar who happens to be a woman? Is it enough for me to have gained equal access to rabbinics by accepting the established patterns of learning and teaching presented by my teachers or should I challenge those patterns? To what extent are my challenges, consciously or unconsciously, a reflection of gender, and does it matter? Which brings us back to the question: what do women see and experience when they read rabbinic texts? Are these texts indeed offensive to women, either because they explicitly demean women or because they promote as ideal a society in which women are second-class citizens? Are rabbinic texts misogynistic? Do they portray women in negative ways or promote hatred of or disdain for women?

But women are almost invisible in rabbinic texts. (2) This leads me to understand rabbinic texts not as patriarchal but as androcentric. This is the case whether the activities being described are those generally believed to be male-dominated or those in which we would expect women to play an active role. It is not surprising to find only four references to women in the Mishnah tractate that deals with prayer, or to discover that those four rules generally exclude women from types of prayer. It is, however, almost eerie to find only a handful of references to women in tractates dealing with Sabbath law and the preparation of food for festivals.

The very language of the Mishnah reinforces the sense of women's absence from Israelite life. The Mishnah uses a preponderance of masculine participles, both singular and plural. While one might argue that in an engendered language like Hebrew one may assume that the masculine verb is being used as the "masculine universal," the constant use of such verbs makes it difficult for a woman to see herself as the subject of the Mishnah's concerns, while making it easy for a man to read "Jew" for "Jewish male." (3) Should we laugh or cry when, due to the use of the masculine participle, the Gentile who takes in the laundry is male, (4) the person carrying a small child is male, (5) and the individuals who deliver babies are male? (6) The Mishnah claims that when women die in childbirth it can sometimes be attributed to their negligence in lighting the Sabbath lamp, (7) but when discussing this obligation the Mishnah uses the masculine form of the participle "they light," "they do not light," and "he who extinguishes the lamp." (8) This exclusion of women, whether intended or incidental, is problematic enough if one regards the Mishnah as a legal compendium or an attempt to preserve traditions. (9) If we accept Jacob Neusner's view that "the Mishnah presents a grand design for the life of the house of Israel, the Jewish people, in all of its principal parts and requirements," (10) the absence of women is even more disturbing. How can women respond to a tradition whose utopia is populated by men with brief, infrequent appearances by women who, even when visible, are silent?

Even in those texts in which women are mentioned frequently, they are generally acted upon rather than acting. (11) According to rabbinic law, only men may initiate marriage and divorce. While women must consent to marriage and may petition a court for a divorce, it is men who actively betroth, marry and divorce; women are betrothed, married and divorced by men. Young girls may be given in marriage by their fathers without their consent, and all women may be divorced against their will.

Yet rabbinic laws of marriage and divorce are enlightened compared to those of contemporaneous cultures. The Mishnah records at least one instance in which a law that disadvantaged women was revised to afford them greater protection: "Originally, a man [who had sent his wife a bill of divorce] could seat a court in another place [away from the wife or the messenger delivering the bill of divorce] and annul [the bill of divorce]. Rabban Gamaliel decreed that they should not do this, for the betterment of the world." (12) The problem, in such a case, is that a man could annul a bill of divorce before it reached his wife but without her knowledge or that of his agent. Upon receipt of the bill of divorce, the wife, ignorant of her husband's actions, might remarry. Any children born of such a union would be illegitimate and the woman herself would be guilty of adultery. The decree of Rabban Gamaliel prevented women from being trapped in such situations.

There are other rabbinic texts that display similar concerns for the welfare of women. The rabbis claim to have revised the financial provisions of the marriage contract several times; each revision was to protect women.
 It was also taught thusly: Originally they wrote [in the marriage
 contract] that a virgin received 200 zuz [in the case of divorce
 or the husband's death] and a widow received 100 zuz. They grew
 old without marrying. They then decreed that the sum should be set
 aside in her father's house, but when a husband grew angry with
 his wife, he would say to her, "Go to your marriage settlement."
 They then decreed that the sum should be set aside in her
 father-in-law's house ... but when [her husband] grew angry with
 her, he would say to her, "Take your marriage settlement and get
 out." Finally, Simeon ben Shetah came and decreed that the husband
 should write in the marriage contract, "All of my possessions are
 subject to the payment of my marriage settlement." (13)


In this case, as in Mishnah Gittin 4:2, rabbinic authorities protect women from the arbitrary behavior of men. While such concern is admirable, it underscores the disadvantage women have under Jewish law. It is precisely because women are subject to the control and mood swings of their husbands that the law must offer them some extra protection. Some would argue that women are being treated with consideration; others would argue that women are being patronized.

There are a number of rabbinic texts that contain general statements about the nature of women. Some of these statements are positive; others are negative. Most of them suggest an attempt on the part of individual men or groups of men to characterize women. As such, these statements, like most that attempt to characterize an entire class of people, are stereotypic. Perhaps the one that reveals the most about the rabbis' often contradictory assertions about women is the statement that "women are a unique class." (14) When all is said and done, women are, to the rabbis, something altogether different and strange.(15)

Finally, there is rabbinic material that goes far beyond marginalizing, condescending to, or stereotyping women. There are passages in rabbinic literature that, although that is certainly not their raison d'etre, are deeply offensive in their portrayal of women or in their discussion of situations affecting women.
 A girl who is three years and one day old may be betrothed
 through sexual intercourse. If her deceased husband's brother has
 intercourse with her, he acquires her as his wife [entering into
 levirate marriage with her. If she is betrothed or married], any
 other man who has intercourse with her is liable for committing
 adultery.... If a close relative has intercourse with her, he is
 liable for capital punishment [for the crime of incest], but she
 is exempt [from punishment, because she is a minor]. If she is
 younger [than three years and one day], [the act of intercourse
 with her] is like putting a finger in the eye. (16)


I would assume (and hope) that most modern readers, whether men or women, would react passionately to this citation from the Mishnah. Our immediate response to any of the situations mentioned in the Mishnah might be, at the very least, to demand that such a man be imprisoned. The Mishnah's only consideration-when is intercourse with a young girl legally effective--would be the last thing on our minds.

Most difficult is the Mishnah's closing phrase, which characterizes intercourse with a very young girl as being "like putting a finger in the eye." The talmudic discussion on this Mishnah (17) reads this phrase as an explanation of what occurs to the hymen when a girl younger than three has intercourse. Just as the eye tears and returns to its previous state after encountering a foreign object, so too, claims the Talmud, the hymen grows back after early intercourse. It is completely irrelevant whether this hypothesis has any scientific merit; what is so disturbing is the apparent aplomb with which the statement is made.

The Talmud goes on to discuss cases in which girls had intercourse while very young. Nothing about these discussions suggests that the rabbis mentioned had qualms about young girls engaging in intercourse. There is some debate as to whether girls younger than eleven can or should bear children.
 R. Bibi recited in the presence of R. Nahman: Three types of
 women use a contraceptive device when having intercourse: A
 minor, a pregnant woman and a nursing woman. A minor-lest she
 become pregnant and die.... Who is considered a minor? A girl
 from the time she is eleven years and one day old until she is
 twelve years and one day old. Before or after this period, she
 has intercourse [without contraception]. This is the view of R.
 Meir. The sages say: In any case she has intercourse [without
 contraception] and may Heaven have mercy. (18)


The sages' hopes that God will be merciful (preventing conception or ensuring a safe delivery), together with R. Meir's suggestion that, at a certain age, a young girl should use birth control, are the only expressions of concern for the welfare of young women evinced in this passage.

Assuming that the rabbis need or deserve our explanations, what might we say in the rabbis' defense? Perhaps the authorities responsible for this passage saw the issue at hand as a legal issue in which the feelings of the girls involved were irrelevant. Perhaps they would have preferred to delay marriage and intercourse, but were constrained by the realities of their society. They may have been disturbed by some of the situations described in this passage and still chosen not to express those feelings in the text itself. They may have seen their reactions as compassionate, insofar as they declared sexual intercourse with a very young girl as having no legal effect. Thus they preserved the girl's virginity under the law, allowing her the chance to make a desirable marriage later in life. It is difficult, if not impossible, to gauge the rabbis' feelings from this type of text. Except for rare moments, their concerns are legal in nature, and the law is built on cases and norms, not on the pain or emotions of individuals. (19)

Having considered different types of rabbinic texts about women, can we conclude that these texts are misogynistic? It would be fair to say that some are. (20) But taken as a whole and overall, what is clear is that women were peripheral to rabbinic thought and discussion. Women were part of the world the rabbis inhabited, but they were far removed from the rabbis' primary concern, the study of Torah. (21)

If women studying rabbinic texts feel somewhat alienated or marginalized, it is as much because of what the texts don't say or portray as what is present. It is a tremendous challenge to feel comfortable with texts that seem so uncomfortable with you, texts whose authors seem quite comfortable in a world in which women are rarely seem or heard. Even a woman who has mastered the discipline often feels like an intruder, an outsider.

How do individuals who approach a tradition as outsiders read texts intended for insiders? I would argue that there are situations in which perceiving oneself as an outsider enriches one's reading of a text. There are also times when such a self-perception makes one's relationship to the text problematic.

Clearly, there is some usefulness in approaching a text as an outsider. Separating ourselves from the texts we study, achieving "scholarly distance," is not always an easy thing. As insiders, we look for certain clues in texts; we expect certain patterns and often interpret them in predictable ways. Perhaps a sense of alienation can help us see familiar texts in new ways. Perceiving ourselves as strangers may allow us to appreciate the marginalized characters of a narrative passage or those affected by a legal ruling. We read in Exodus 23:9 "You know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt." When we have been outsiders, or have perceived ourselves as outsiders, it sensitizes us to the feelings of others with similar experiences. How many of us ever read the story of Esau and Jacob without thinking of the former as anything but a foil for his younger, more important brother? We may condemn Jacob's actions or we may seek to justify them, but we always focus on him. In rabbinic interpretation of this material, Esau is vilified and Jacob exonerated. If we look at the story anew, from the point of view of the marginalized Esau, what do we see? A young man who tries to please his father through his activities and again through his marriages, but whose attempts are never successful. When Esau cries out, "Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father?" (Genesis 27:38), can anyone who has ever felt left out or passed over fail to sympathize? Here too the multivalent text of the Torah makes room for the dispossessed, the underdog, whatever the interpretive attention offered by the hegemonic and legally focused reader.

But sometimes reading as an outsider inhibits our ability to see the multiple possibilities in a text. An outsider's reading can be as rigid and judgmental as that of an "insider." The patriarchal narratives of Genesis are just that, patriarchal, but that doesn't mean the biblical narrative cares nothing for the fate of the women it mentions. When a woman reads the patriarchal narratives of Genesis, she might easily experience women as powerless. What can be more disturbing than the helplessness of Dinah, raped, haggled over, abducted and rescued, but never consulted, never allowed to speak? But does the biblical narrative ignore the outrage committed against Dinah? The rape is expressly described as "an outrage ... a thing not to be done" (Genesis 34:7). Dinah's brothers avenge her and protest that to do nothing would be to allow their sister to be treated like a whore (Genesis 34:31). While feminists may not find the account entirely satisfactory, one can hardly read Genesis 34 as license to rape.

Furthermore, what you see in any text depends, to a great extent, on what you look for. Consider the opening verses of Genesis 30. "When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, 'Give me children, or I shall die.' Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, 'Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?'" One could argue that Jacob and Laban's economic arrangement of bartering women for labor had resulted in estrangement between Rachel and Leah. One could claim that Rachel has low self-esteem as a result of living in a society that values women only for their fertility and that Jacob is grossly insensitive to Rachel's pain. This reading portrays Rachel's attempt to have children through her maid Bilhah as a desperate attempt to be valued in a society whose values are injurious to women.

This exchange can be read in a very different way. A person who knows something about infertility and the emotions it engenders could probably read Rachel and Jacob's exchange more sympathetically, knowing that the inability to have a child strains even the best marriage. Furthermore, Jacob's retort highlights his own sense of helplessness. Jacob cannot give his beloved wife children; the power to reproduce, at least in Genesis, belongs solely to God. Jacob's response reflects the feeling of being powerless that all human beings, men and women, feel at some time during their lives. Rachel's attempt to have children through a surrogate now can be seen as an empowering act; apparently denied children by God, Rachel seeks to circumvent God-and succeeds.

I am not suggesting that one of these readings is more authentic than the other. Each reading is shaped by a reader who brings to the biblical text her own values and experiences. What I would suggest is that there are multiple ways to read a text without doing it violence. The choice to read as insiders or outsiders is frequently our own.

Clearly, the entry of women into the field of rabbinics, whether as teachers or learners, has had and will continue to have an impact on our understanding of classical Jewish texts. Areas of Jewish tradition that touch on women's lives--family law, the laws of menstruation, the relation of women to specific types of mitzvot-are written about far more today than was the case 40 years ago. There is a growing scholarship on gender-related topics, as well as a burgeoning body of more popular literature. (22) There is also a growing move toward "engendered" readings of rabbinic texts, readings that allow for reinterpretations of texts in light of women's encounters with rabbinic literature. (23)

Women's growing engagement with classical rabbinic texts has already had an impact on gender-related issues in Jewish law. Discussions of women's participation in the synagogue and their ordination as rabbis and cantors within the Conservative Movement, gender-sensitive liturgies in Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism, and the establishment of women's prayer groups in the Orthodox community are all, in some sense, responses to women's increased study of Jewish texts. Furthermore, while early discussions of women's status within the halakha were conducted primarily by men, (24) women are increasingly able to participate in such discussions. (25) Women now serve as "respondents" on aspects of halakha related to menstruation and as advocates in the religious court system in Israel. There are clear indications that the study of classical Jewish texts encourages women to question and reevaluate their relationship to those texts and to the tradition. (26)

Years ago, when I was asked "How can you, as a feminist, teach such misogynistic texts," what did I answer? That Jewish women, together with Jewish men, are heirs to thousands of years of Jewish tradition. A large segment of that tradition is composed of rabbinic literature and that literature was shaped by men. We can accept these texts with their traditional interpretations; we can reinterpret them. We can struggle with these texts, attempt to find meaning within them, or we can despise them. In theory, we can even reject them. But rejecting these texts, as attractive as it sometimes seems, is problematic on two levels. First of all, if women reject these texts and refuse to confront them, the texts remain the property of others. They are enshrined, together with their traditional interpretations, and remain unquestioned. As a teacher, I worry far more when my students are uncritically accepting of texts than I worry because they question the assumptions and conclusions of the texts. Secondly, despite my struggles with rabbinic texts, I have come to feel that they are mine. Whatever their faults, I am unwilling to walk away from them.

There is no question that rabbinic texts reflect a world in which men were central and women peripheral. No mode of interpretation that I know of can alter that fact. The growing number of women entering the field of rabbinics and an increased sensitivity to the male-centeredness of these texts has provided us with new ways of looking at rabbinics, but much remains to be done. What is crucial is the proper balance between comfort and discomfort, the feeling that one has become an insider and the feeling that one is still an outsider. If we can find this balance, I think we can continue to interpret, reinterpret, and evaluate rabbinic texts, and find and reveal the new meanings they articulate.

Ironically, it seems to me more and more that it is women who would deny themselves that sense of empowerment, of belonging, that comes with the mastery of a discipline. Women portray themselves as outsiders in relation to rabbinic literature and many other genres of religious texts. In so doing, they deny themselves the opportunity to become insiders. As long as I tell myself that I have no portion in a text, that the text in question does not speak to me nor I to the text, I remain portionless and speechless. Perhaps the process of becoming an insider is different for a woman than it is for a man. It clearly involves more than mastering the appropriate languages or the various types of text criticism. Women approach the study of rabbinics aware that for over 1500 years, they were not a part of the enterprise. We are now trained to unlock the texts, but the relationship is still somewhat tentative. There was no one to teach me how to read rabbinic texts as a woman; to the best of my knowledge, my professors probably never considered the question. My assumption is that if I keep reading, the texts will respond.

NOTES

1. This is not always the case. One of my colleagues taught a seminar with thirteen female and two male students. The men were outspoken in their views and often abusive towards those who disagreed. One of my colleague's greatest frustrations was that her female students, despite the presence of a female professor and the subject matter--the way course considered the ways that women read the Bible--allowed the male students to dominate class discussion.

2. That sense of "invisibility" is captured in the title of Rachel Adler's article "The Jew Who Wasn't There: Halakhah and the Jewish Woman," Davka (Summer 1972): 7-11.

3. The sense of exclusivity conveyed by the use (and misuse) of the "masculine universal" is discussed by Cynthia Ozick in "notes toward Finding the Right Question," in On Being a Jewish Feminist, edited by Susannah Heschel (New York: Schocken Books, 1983), p. 125.

4. Mishnah Shabbat 1:9.

5. Mishnah Shabbat 21:1.

6. Mishnah Shabbat 18:3.

7. Mishnah Shabbat 2:6.

8. Mishnah Shabbat 2:1-3, 5.

9. See Hanokh Albeck, Mavo LaMishnah (Jerusalem-Tel Aviv: Bialik Institute-Dvir Co., 1979), pp. 99-115.

10. Jacob Neusner, Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago-London: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. ix.

11. Judith Romney Wegner, in Chattel or Person: The Status of Women in the Mishnah (New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), argues that there are two classes of women in the Mishnah: dependent women and autonomous women. I agree with her claim that emancipated daughters, divorcess and widows have more freedom than minor daughters, wives and levirate widows insofar as they control their own sexuality. At the same time, most laws apply to all women equally, regardless of their marital status. Furthermore, the rabbis of the Mishnah are most interested in women insofar as they relate to men as daughters and wives. The "emancipated" woman is not a topic for prolonged discussion.

12. Mishnah Gittin 4:2.

13. Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 82b.

14. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 62a.

15. There is never any attempt in rabbinic literature to make sweeping statements about the nature of men. Most statements about the nature of women reflect the qualities that the rabbis believe distinguish women from men. This is in keeping with Simone de Beauvoir's observation that "humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him." Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), p. xviii.

16. Mishnah Niddah 5:4.

17. Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 45a.

18. Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 45a.

19. It should be noted that the rabbis do recognize that, at times, the law responds to the pain of individuals. In Mishnah Baba Qamma 8:1, and in the related talmudic passages, the law provides compensation not only for pain and suffering due to injury, but also for embarrassment that is caused. The compensation for embarrassment, according to the Mishnah, is assessed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the status and nature of the parties involved as well as the act.

20. On the dangers of reading rabbinic texts through the negative feelings expressed towards women in later Judaism, see Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London: University of California Press, 1993), p. 96.

21. Boyarin argues that women were often in fact perceived as a threat to men's ability to study Torah whole-heartedly.

22. Recent scholarship includes Charlotte Fonrobert, Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstruction of Biblical Gender (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), Michael Satlow's Jewish Marriage in Antiquity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), and Cynthia Baker's Rebuilding the House of Israel: Architectures of Gender in Jewish Antiquity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).

23. See Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998), ch. 1, and Dvora Weisberg, "Men Imagining Women Imagining God: Gender Issues in Classical Midrash," in Agendas for the Study of Midrash in the Twenty-first Century, edited by Marc Lee Raphael (Williamsburg, VA: College of William and Mary, 1999).

24. See The Ordination of Women as Rabbis, edited by Simon Greenberg (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1988), Irwin Haut, Divorce in Jewish Law and Life (New York: Sepher-Hermon Press, 1983), and discussions of women's prayer groups in Sh'ma, 15/294 (May 17, 1985), 15/299 (October 18, 1985), and 27/531 (April 4, 1997).

25. One example of this phenomenon is Jewish Legal Writings by Women, edited by Micah D. Halpern and Chana Safrai (Brooklyn: Urim Publications, 1998). The decision to create this work and the ability of the publishers to find enough women to produce such a book (with a second volume expected out in the near future) testifies to the growing number of women conversant with rabbinic texts a willingness in the observant community to hear women's voices on legal issues.

26. See, for example, Tamar El-Or, Next Year I Will Know More: Literacy and Identity Among Young Orthodox Women in Israel (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002).

DVORA WEISBERG is Assistant Professor of Rabbinics at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles.
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Title Annotation:Judaism
Author:Weisberg, Dvora
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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Formative Judaism: what do we know and how.
Decentering Judaism and Christianity: Using Feminist Theory to Construct a Postmodern Jewish-Christian Theology.
Introduction to David Weiss Halivni's "Prayer in the Shoah".
Facing an environmental crisis. (Reviews).
The problem of anti-Judaism in Christian feminist biblical interpretation: some pragmatic suggestions.
After forty years.
Faithful and sane.

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