Jewish Tradition, Gender, and Women

views updated

Jewish Tradition, Gender, and Women

In his explorations of Jewish memory, cultural anthropologist Jonathan Boyarin (1992) affirms that Jews have always used narratives to recreate their shared identities across time, producing self-created mythifying forms. Indeed, Jewish culture, perpetuating its own values and practices, promoted a collective and monolithic portrait of the Jewish woman that extolled the virtues of chastity, decency, and modesty. This constructed narrative, with its distorted reality, was incorporated into collective expressions and beliefs for the purpose, avowed or unrecognized, of legitimizing the status quo and the control of women.

This rigid representation with its inherent flaws was integrated into, and passed on by, medieval Christian mainstream society, conferring ultimate legitimacy on an invention, the stereotypical Jewish woman, exotic and enticing, who would become, in the nineteenth century, the bearer of so-called Oriental submissive traits. The historical construction of the medieval Jewish woman thus navigates between two historical practices—a Christian and a Jewish one—that have commented on her since the Middle Ages (467–1350), and, albeit stemming from different sources and different perspectives, ended up expressing a single prevalent discourse. These practices amounted to minimizing the presence of women on a quantitative level and, on a qualitative one, to stereotyping them.

Embodiment was a crucial structure of gender in medieval culture for Jews and Christians alike, but the unity of gender and sex was even more essential for Jewish communities. It was the effect of a regulatory practice that sought to render gender identity uniform, not only through compulsory heterosexuality, but through a strict gender differentiation in religious matters and the daily duties of religion, maintained in dress codes and in sexual roles as well. Even though not all male Jews studied Torah, the pursuit of study was what defined the ideal male status in Jewish society. Whether this is a correct interpretation of the Talmud or not, as Daniel Boyarin (1997) says it is nonetheless certain that in historical Judaism women have been taught to experience themselves as impure, dangerous, and devaluated through exclusions. There were but few examples of women studying Torah, suggesting that normatively they were not encouraged to, but rather prevented from, studying and, thus, confined to more worldly activities. Boyarin also suggests that the scant evidence of the power and creativity of women found in the Talmud has to be used to deconstruct the monolithic image of women as powerless. Judith Baskin (1994) notes that as most ordinary Jewish women were cut off from the knowledge of Hebrew that would enable them to read the traditional liturgy, during the late Middle Ages, a separate woman's vernacular literature of prayer was written for them.

The portrait of women as an ideal embodiment of the religious and social practices of Jewish life has, for historical and cultural reasons, not as yet met challenges sufficient to undermine its artificial dynamics, and the study of Jewish women has remained a subfield attracting little attention. Jewish scholarship has remained predominantly the study of male Jews, considered the default-value of their culture. Within such a perspective the central figure of the Jew could only be "the body with the circumcised penis—an image crucial to the very understanding of the Western image of the Jew at least since the advent of Christianity" (Gilman 1991, p. 4-5). Jewish scholarship has thus remained a strongly traditional field, maintaining its distance from trends and theories that propose new readings of gender. Conservatism has prevailed for a long period of time within Jewish Studies, but the discipline took a sharp turn during the 1970s, and a small, albeit growing, number of scholars such as Daniel Boyarin and David Biale (1994) proposed original approaches to the interpretation of Jewish culture. They have engaged in an animated debate to recontextualize the position of Jewish women.

The field of history in particular has incurred strong criticism, questioning the veracity of a canonical male-centered norm. Past and present resistance by certain historians of Judaism to envisioning women differently has discouraged deeper examination in Jewish history. That position has been highly contested since the advent of the second wave of American feminism, but it was only in the 1990s that a strong current of Jewish feminism emerged with scholars such as Paula Hyman (1995), Judith Hauptman (1998), Susannah Heschel (1995), and Bernadette Brooten (1996), among others, asserting that the impact of feminist historical scholarship is still too limited in this particular field.

Feminist social history has stressed the importance of alternative epistemologies that explore the everyday lives of ordinary individuals in combination with gender as a major interpretive category. Indeed, women were only absent from the communal realm of Jewish life with respect to official religion. Jewish women actively participated in the public life. Although not numerous, Jewish women physicians practiced their trade in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: Sarre in Paris; Fava, the only known surgeon in Provence; and Mayronna in Manosque. Sarah of Saint-Gilles (Montpellier), like her male colleagues, also served as a mentor to young students (Shatzmiller 1994).

William Chester Jordan (1993) notes that records of moneylending transactions in thirteenth-century northern France attest that one-third of the lending business was in women's hands. Françoise Lehoux (1956) points out that whereas many of these women, such as Agnes and Meliota, dealt with small loans in rural environment; Précieuse, a century later, had a reputation that extended far beyond the boundaries of her small Jewish quarter in Paris.

The gender script to which medieval Jewish women were encouraged to conform only exposed them, especially ordinary women, to further isolation in a male-dominated society where they appeared mostly as incidental references in communal records. In a fervent religious environment, the social and cultural aspects of communal life and its everyday reality were not considered worthy of being recorded; therefore, the social impact of women's activities was historically overlooked. Sarah Swartz Silberstein and Margie Wolfe (1989) show that in complying with the concept of zahkor (remembrance), a major tenet in traditional Jewish practices and teachings, the recorders of Jewish events, in their own peculiar way, obliterated women and dissolved their past within the frame of the general historical discourse. The memory of things past was recombined to mirror community aspirations and struggles, to recount the dramatic moments lived by the scattered Jews. Rabbinic writings were preserved and cultivated and, through a selective process, transmitted, producing a communal hegemony and, ultimately, creating the fiction of an "authoritative Judaism" (Biale 1994, p. 42). Although the term invisibility is perhaps a cliché, it remains inescapable when speaking of medieval Jewish women, because its opposite, visibility, has to be somehow inscribed either in textuality or in a form of embodiment because, in respect to both these fields of inscription, Jewish women were carefully pushed aside.

Women certainly had more freedom of action in social contexts than their legal and religious statuses might suggest. They were more inclined to be involved in social life than pious men. Even though scholars have assumed their lives to be conventional, traces of women's private and public acts in the few records that have survived prove that their existence was not fixed and absolute in terms of gender. Their involvement in economic transactions is confirmed in the remaining evidence of the French legal records. These entrepreneurial Jewish women who supported their families economically while their husbands were away or who devoted themselves to study may have been seen by Christians as an indication of a subversion of gender distinctions, both as "masculinization" of properly "feminine" behavior and as "feminized" arrogation of male authority by women (Kruger 1997, p. 24-25). The disruption created by women performing nonnormative roles in seemingly structured societies accentuated the precarious nature of masculinity and its construction not only in Jewish communities but in Christian society as well. Interrogating the role of these women is certainly a challenge to male-centered historiography because, even though Jewish women are specifically mentioned in moneylending charters and notarial contracts, the importance of their role has been diminished or erased to minimize their involvement. Their role in medieval moneylending and usury still remains insufficiently explored, and only Gérard Nahon (1969), followed by William Chester Jordan a few years later, stressed the importance of the phenomenon in the local economy in northern France, for instance.

Doña Gracia Mendes Nasi (1510–1568) is not only considered to be one of the most remarkable figures of the sixteenth century but also of Jewish history. This widow, in spite of her gender and thanks to her immense family fortune, succeeded in one of the most powerful positions in the European trade and banking in a virulent anti-Semitic period. Gracia, from a converso (New Christian) family, had to flee the Spanish Inquisition in Portugal, moving first to the Low Countries, then to Italy, where she reverted openly to Judaism, and finally to Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire. She was widely known for her patronage and philanthropic activities, adopting the lifestyle of a wealthy European aristocrat, but at the same time she remained faithful to the Jewish community, which, as noted by Marianna D. Birnbaum (2003), she generously funded. Her recognized entrepreneurial capacities question the notion of a natural division of roles and of clear-cut gender attributions, refuting rigid normative configurations.

From the mid-nineteenth century on, a rising category of wealthy and privileged Jewish women, highly visible in the social arena, played a pivotal role in their communities in France, England, and Germany. Their passionate activism, political and social, revitalized Jewish communities at a time of heightened social awareness and tensions. And the cultural force these women came to represent forged new links with the past, reclaiming for Jewish women not only a tradition of direct involvement but of discreet leadership as well. Jacob R. Marcus (1981) notes that Rebecca Gratz (1781–1869) is one of the most famous examples of these local philanthropists. She was active in establishing Jewish educational institutions and social organizations, founding, in 1819, the Hebrew Benevolent Aid Society of Philadelphia.

On another level the spread of the Enlightenment in eastern Europe from 1870 to the 1930s exposed numerous young Jewish women, with little or no religious intellectual training, to the new ideologies. In the years between the first partition of Poland in 1722 and the Russian Revolution in 1917, middle-class and working-class Jewish women were among the small group of founders of the Jewish socialist party, the Bund. Others actively participated in the revolutionary politics in Czarist Russia. Many of these radicalized women arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1924 among the 2.5 million east European Jewish immigrants. They were pioneers in the trade union movement until the 1930s. They also politically organized women in socialist and Zionist movements. In 1912 Henrietta Szold (1860–1945), a scholar and an activist, created Hadassah, a volunteer women's Zionist organization, which has become the largest Jewish women's organization in the United States.

Although the cultural discourse of the Jewish communities and society at large have concurred to cultivate and maintain persisting stereotypes of Jewish women, a closer examination of their activities and participation in the public sphere, clearly refutes gender entrapment and gender roles.


Baskin, Judith R. 1994. "Rabbinic Judaism and the Creation of Women." In Feminist Perspectives on Jewish Studies, ed. Lynn Davidman and Shelly Tenenbaum. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Biale, David. 1994. "Confessions of an Historian of Jewish Culture." Jewish Social Studies 1(1): 40-51.

Birnbaum, Marianna D. 2003. The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes. Budapest, New York: Central European University Press.

Boyarin, Jonathan. 1992. Storm from Paradise: The Politics of Jewish Memory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Boyarin, Daniel. 1997. Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brooten, Bernadette. 1996. Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gilman, Sander L. 1991. The Jew's Body. New York: Routledge.

Hauptman, Judith. 1998. Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice. Boulder: Westview Press.

Heschel, Susannah ed. 1995. On Being a Jewish Feminist. New York: Schocken Books.

Hyman, Paula. 1995. Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Role and Representation of Women. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Jordan, William Chester. 1993. Women and Credit in Pre-Industrial and Developing Societies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kruger, Steven F. 1997. "Becoming Christian, Becoming Male?" In Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler. New York: Garland. 21-41.

Lehoux, Françoise. 1956. "Le duc de Berri, les Juifs et les Lombards" [The Duke of Berri, the Jews and the Lombards]. Revue Historique 215: 38-57.

Marcus Jacob R. 1981. The American Jewish Woman: A Documentary History. New York: Ktav Publishing House.

Nahon, Gérard. 1969. "Le crédit et les Juifs dans la France du XIIIe siècle" [Credit and the Jews in thirteenth-century France]. Annales, Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations. 24(5): 1121-1148.

Reinharz, Shulamit, and Mark A. Raider, eds. 2005. American Jewish Women and the Zionist Enterprise. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press.

Shatzmiller, Joseph. 1994. Jews, Medicine, and Medieval Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Shepherd, Naomi. 1993. A Price below Rubies: Jewish Women as Rebels and Radicals. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press.

Silberstein, Swartz Sarah, and Margie Wolfe, eds.1989. From Memory to Transformation: Jewish Women's Voices. Toronto: Second Story Press.

                                            Rosa Alvarez Perez

About this article

Jewish Tradition, Gender, and Women

Updated About content Print Article