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Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe.

Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe. By Avraham Grossman. Trans. Jonathan Chipman (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2004. xv plus 329 pp. $29.95).

This important and pioneering book presents a panoramic overview of the lives of Jewish women in the Muslim and Christian worlds of the Middle Ages, as well as in the transitional environment of medieval Spain. Grossman, Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, brings a thoroughgoing expertise in the legal, exegetical, ethical, social, and literary sources of medieval Jewish life to this systematic exposition of what can be surmised about that voiceless female half of medieval Jewry who left virtually no written documents of any kind. A regrettable weakness of this abridged translation of a Hebrew original, published in 2001, however, is that much of the scholarly apparatus and bibliography, as well as many excerpts from primary texts, are absent in the English version.

The topics discussed in Pious and Rebellious include the image of woman in rabbinic literature, the parameters of medieval Jewish family life and marriage, woman's domestic and social status and her place in economic and religious life, female education and roles in family religious ceremonies, violence against women, and the position of the divorcee and the widow in various Jewish societies. Grossman also examines what the sources have to say about women's behavior in moments of crisis, such as the First Crusade of 1096. Each chapter begins with a brief discussion of the relevant biblical and talmudic heritage underlying the topic at hand, followed by a comparative survey of Muslim and Christian practice. Grossman then goes on to examine separately the evidence for Jewish communities in the Muslim world, Germany and France, Spain, and occasionally Italy.

In the first chapter, Grossman is candid on the negative ways in which woman were constructed as "other" and as morally inferior to men in the foundation texts of rabbinic Judaism. Ever aware of the medieval impact of these negative descriptions, both on men's perceptions of women and women's self-images, he also delineates the persistent connections between women and sorcery in rabbinic writings and their afterlife in medieval folk literature and mystical teachings. Conversely, Grossman also highlights rabbinic expressions of love and praise for compliant wives, insisting that, "One must not blindly accept the negative image of women as reflecting the actual attitude toward women in society and in the family" (p. 31). Still, as the body of his book makes clear, at no time or place in the Middle Ages, did Jewish men ever imagine that women were their equals.

Grossman's particular focus is Jewish life in France and Germany (known to Jews as Ashkenaz) between 1000 and 1300. He argues that women's position markedly improved during this time period, relative both to the talmudic era and to the situation of Jewish women in Muslim countries. The reason was the economic success that transformed the relatively small Jewish communities of Ashkenaz into a bourgeois society. As Jews prospered in trade and money lending, Jewish women played an increasingly vital and often autonomous part in their family's economic lives, both as merchants and as financial brokers. Indeed, Jewish women's influential position and activities during the High Middle Ages parallel those of Christian women within the upper bourgeoisie, as both groups of women achieved literacy, financial skills, and ran their households and economic affairs effectively during their husbands' absences, whether on mercantile or military endeavors.

Grossman explores the ban against polygyny for Ashkenazic Jewry, attributed to R. Gershom of Mainz around the year 1000. Scholarly opinion remains divided as to the reasons for this takkanah (revision in Jewish law), since polygamy was already rare in this particular Jewish community. Grossman believes that the influence of the monogamous Christian environment was central, as was the high general status of women in Christian Europe. A similar edict connected with R. Gershom ruled that a husband could not divorce a wife against her will, another significant improvement for women over talmudic law. Grossman suggests that the edict forbidding polygyny was also motivated by the involvement of many German Jewish men in international trade which often involved lengthy sojourns in Muslim countries. Some of these merchants may have married second wives while absent from home for long periods of time; the problem of deserted wives and their children is often referred to in Jewish legal literature from the Muslim environment and R. Gershom's ban (excommunication) may have been intended to prevent such callous behavior that also strained community welfare resources.

Women's high status in Ashkenaz is demonstrated, as well, in their increased involvement in Jewish religious life, including the voluntary assumption of religious practices from which they were exempt in talmudic Judaism. Grossman connects women's insertion of themselves into areas of Jewish practice previously exclusively male not only to Jewish women's economic success, but to contemporaneous religious revivals in which Christian women took part in reshaping prayers and religious worship in the church. One example is the insistence of prominent women in serving as godmother (sandeqa'it) at the circumcision of a son or grandson. R. Meir of Rothenburg, a major rabbinic leader of the fourteenth century, attempted to abolish this practice since he believed the presence of perfumed and well dressed women in the synagogue among men was immodest. His failure to eliminate this custom, which continued until the beginning of the fifteenth century, indicates Jewish women's social clout. Yet, it is important to note that as the political and economic situation of European Jewish communities worsened beginning in the mid-fourteenth century and traditional customs were reasserted, most of the gains Jewish women had achieved, in this and other areas, were firmly curtailed.

The title of this volume poses a conundrum. "Rebels" (moredot) usually refers in rabbinic Judaism to women who refused to submit to their husband's wishes in order to force their husbands to grant them a divorce. As Grossman details, this was a common strategy employed by many economically successful medieval Jewish women. Yet, medieval Jewish women's piety also led them to rebel against rabbinic strictures that limited their meaningful participation in Jewish religious and communal life. As Grossman demonstrates masterfully, both the piety and the rebellion were indicative of Jewish women's self-awareness and confidence during a short lived window of female empowerment.

Judith R. Baskin

University of Oregon
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Author:Baskin, Judith R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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