The object of this study is to examine the role and function of women
in the performance of the Jewish ritual of male infant circumcision. The
approach to the topic is a socio-anthropological one, based on the "practice
theory" model. Late Antiquity rabbinic writings are the primary sources
of this analysis.
The texts that discuss the legal obligation to perform circumcision
are presented first, followed by texts suggestive of women's involvement
in the ritual. The question of whether women performed the act of
circumcision, either by themselves or with the help of a third party, is
The article concludes that while the sources do not support the assertion
that women performed the ritual on a regular basis, they demonstrate
something far more socially significant. Women are depicted as circumcisers
in special circumstances: to demonstrate support for the rabbinic
system, or in situations where their infants' health was at risk. In this
latter role, they questioned halakhah and in the process influenced its
development. We conclude that the rabbinic corpus shows that through
their praxis, women were an active part of the chain of rabbinic culture's
evolution and development.
Jewish women -- Health and hygiene -- Early works to 1800.
Jews -- Medicine -- Early works to 1800.
Gynecology -- History -- To 1500.
Women in Judaism.
Monica Green has recently demonstrated that the thirteenth century, in the textual tradition of the Secreta mulierum, witnessed a transformation in the notions of secrecy associated with women, as well as in attitudes towards obtaining knowledge about women's bodies. Texts belonging to this tradition defined female bodies and their functioning from a male-centered point of view and focused on generation. However, although this shift undoubtedly influenced the perception of womanhood among some members of Jewish intellectual circles, it seems not to have left many traces in the Hebrew treatises on women's health care known to us. This article explores the meanings and evolution of the term "secret" in relation to women in Hebrew literature, and analyzes how the concept "secrets of women" was understood in medieval Hebrew medical texts devoted to women's health care.
The association of "secret" with "women's genitalia" has an ancient and long history within Jewish literature. However, the phrase sitrei nashim (secrets of women) also appears profusely in Sefer hayosher, a medical encyclopedia of unknown authorship written in the thirteenth century, not as a reference to a part of women's bodies but as a generic label for works or parts of works devoted to women's health care. Not only the contents but also the aim of all the Hebrew texts from this period that referred to their subject as "women's matters" or "secrets of women" are similar: They dealt with the specific ailments of women, offering a variety of therapeutic measures embedded in contemporary Graeco-Arabic medical knowledge, with the obvious purpose of alleviating women's suffering and securing their wellbeing. Apparently "secret" had acquired a meaning linked to health care in some therapeutic contexts. This new meaning retained the association with female sexual difference manifested in the older Hebrew references to women's private parts as the "house of secrets," but it did not share the strong misogynistic connotations that this term later acquired in the Secreta mulierum tradition.
Jewish women -- Health and hygiene -- Social aspects -- Israel.
Ethiopians -- Israel -- Social life and customs.
Mothers and daughters -- Israel.
Intergenerational communication -- Israel.
Traditionally, the older females in an extended family, including mother, aunts, sisters or grandmother, instructed young women about the various aspects of the life cycle, including puberty, menstruation, sex, reproduction and child care. In Israel, the immigration process has changed social relationships and family structures, which in turn shape the intergenerational transfers of knowledge. As a result, over the past few decades other sources of knowledge have become important influences in producing knowledge for young women. These include their peers, school, scientific information, doctors and commercial products. This paper examines how Ethiopian mothers after immigration to Israel pass health-related information to their daughters in relation to puberty, menstruation, childbirth and breast-feeding, as well as behaviors that are important for health maintenance and promotion: nutrition, smoking and exercise. Using qualitative interviews of three mother–daughter pairs and six additional women informants, the paper examines how women's health behaviors changed as young women adapted to Israeli norms while retaining their respect and understanding of the views of their mothers' generation toward health and health promotion. Two sets of values interacted to influence health behavior: cultural values including religious traditions; and perceptions of the health-related value of the behavior, which were tempered by personal or vicarious experiences.
The halakhah binds observant Jews to fulfill the biblical commandment to "be fruitful and multiply." The rabbis in the Talmud expanded this biblical obligation into two injunctions: lashevet—"to populate the world," and la'erev—"to father more children," interpreted as meaning that each man ought to father as many children as he is able.
This commandment is characterized by a dialectic tension. On the one hand, emphasis is placed on the importance of the commandment and of fulfilling it punctiliously. On the other, there is recognition of the need to qualify it, because of the existential difficulties it presents. This tension is emphasized in the literature of the Sages and the medieval rabbinic decisors, but it is absent from most contemporary halakhic rulings, whose rhetoric is usually that contraception or "family planning" is a "necessary evil," a product of "invidious modernism." Halakhic decisors encourage young couples to start having children immediately after marriage (at least until, health permitting, they have fulfilled the biblical commandment of procreation) and to raise as large a family as possible.
This trend, I shall argue, caters to male rather than female interests, and is fueled by a covert gender perspective that assumes that woman's main purpose is to bear and raise children. This article investigates the existence of a halakhic basis for family planning, and the extent to which that basis has been and could be invoked to take women's interests into account in family planning by observant young couples today.
Prenatal diagnosis -- Religious aspects -- Judaism.
Human reproduction (Jewish law)
Abortion -- Law and legislation -- Israel.
Biopolitics -- Israel.
Studies have shown that Israeli women and the Israeli legal, religious and medical establishments are exceptionally supportive of reproductive genetics and its outcomes, in the form either of selective abortions based on the unborn child's prospective health, or of prevention of carriers of the same recessive genetic anomaly from marrying each other.
While reproductive genetics has been intensely criticized throughout the western world, criticism has been more or less absent from Israeli-Jewish society. Indeed, Israeli women are heavily pressured to engage in the selection of their embryos, or, in the ultra-Orthodox community, to marry according to "genetic compatibility." Where other theories understand this as deriving from collective ideals of bodily perfection that push for the selection of future generations, I ask why inhibitions concerning Prenatal Diagnosis (PND) and its more immediate meanings are lacking. In order to answer this question, I draw on culturally specific Israeli-Jewish understandings of such issues as the biocultural concept of "life" and that of a "life worthy of living" versus "wrongful life"; the moral standing of the fetus and its mother; and Jewish-Zionist attitudes towards science, medicine and eugenics.
Reflections offered in this essay draw upon my recently completed doctoral research comparing the fields of reproductive genetics in Israel and Germany.
Fertilization in vitro, Human -- Social aspects -- Israel.
Fertilization in vitro, Human -- Law and legislation -- Israel.
Health care rationing -- Israel.
Israel -- Population policy.
Israeli society has the highest rates of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) intervention in the world, as well as the highest per capita consumption rate of infertility therapy, with In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) at its center. This situation is sustained by an unprecedented public health policy, posing hardly any restrictions on the eligibility of Israeli citizens for infertility treatments within the National Health Insurance (NHI) system. Given the health risks as well as the emotional and financial costs involved in the excessive use of IVF, this pattern of regulation and consumption calls for a careful sociological and ethical consideration of its origins and implications.
The paper is based on an analysis of key processes and events that took place in the Israeli regulatory and legal arena between 1994 (when the Israeli National Health Insurance Law was enacted) and 2003 (when the last attempt thus far to de-insure IVF was made). Processes and events that took place within that decade include legal actions taken by consumers in matters concerning IVF, court verdicts on IVF usage, parliamentary discussions on IVF regulation and failed attempts to restrict NHI coverage of IVF.
We argue that existing policies and utilization patterns of IVF in Israel are embedded within several frameworks: Israel's pro-natalist culture and "pro-family" values (both of which are contextualized within the Jewish state), a political discourse of demographic threats and rights, organizational changes stemming from the 1994 NHI Law, and the emergence of a "consumer rights" discourse within the public health system. In the concluding section, we discuss the ethical aspects of IVF in Israel, arguing that a reconsideration of priorities in a context of limited economic resources is much needed at this time.
Fertilization in vitro, Human -- Social aspects -- Israel.
During the last two decades, the use of reproductive technologies in Israel has been on the increase. While feminist studies on mothering inherently focus on the experiences of women who have actually achieved motherhood, perceptions of motherhood among women undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments have received little attention. On the assumption that motherhood perceptions are intrinsic to would-be mothers' experiences, I studied "biological motherhood" accounts of infertile women in the context of reproductive technologies.
The study involved 25 infertile, Israeli-Jewish, heterosexually married women undergoing IVF treatments for a first pregnancy. A semi-structured interview was conducted to allow the women to openly discuss issues concerning their perceptions of motherhood. Research findings show that motherhood perceptions dictated two distinct categories of discourse. The first category, the "obeying-the-treatment-routine" discourse, surfaced from the accounts of 14 of the interviewees. Women belonging to this category adopted the dominant motherhood discourses of the pronatalist ideology prevalent in Israeli society. They were willing to cooperate with constraints imposed on them by technological practice and voluntarily assimilated various discourses of discipline "for the sake of successful treatment." Underlying this approach is the message that motherhood is a superior value and that the non-impregnated female body has no rights of its own and constitutes a threat to the social order. A second discourse of motherhood emerged from the accounts of 11 interviewees, classified as the "negotiating" type. The negotiating approach was associated with female motivation to maintain an active dialogue with the hegemonic-technocratic order that demands to define motherhood. These women submitted social-cultural motherhood discourses to screening and reflexive judgment.
The research findings suggest that even though women share the same socio-cultural environment (Israeli pronatalism) and physical circumstances (the inability to conceive), their interpretations of motherhood are varied and wide-ranging. Understanding these women's perceptions should nurture the theoretical debate over motherhood and contribute to developing better means of assisting women undergoing IVF treatments.
Like in most other industrialized countries, childbirth in Israel is defined in medical terms and takes place mainly in hospital. Nonetheless, its medicalization is extreme along a number of parameters. For example, other than a privately funded home birth, there are no alternatives to hospital birth; and birth as currently managed in Israeli hospitals has been described as among the most medicalized in the world. Most notable, however, is a local legislative provision (originally section 30(a) of the Law of National Insurance ) that establishes the entitlement of every Israeli birthing mother to a Birth Grant—but only on the condition that she have herself hospitalized in connection with the birth. Notwithstanding the significant limitations this puts upon their freedom of choice in childbirth, few Israeli women have ever probed the existence of this unique law or sought its demise. This article seeks to explain this accepting behavior on the part of Israeli women, as well as the contours taken on by the local birth culture more generally, on the basis of another notable characteristic of Israeli society—militarism. More specifically, it raises the hypothesis that in Israeli society, hospital childbirth, that is, childbirth in the manner prescribed by the state, is considered women's national service, parallel to military conscription for men. The possible implications of this military–maternity analogy for the (equal) rights of birthing women are also examined.
This article suggests a novel approach to the problem of how the talmudic concept of kevod hatzibbur (the dignity of the community) should be understood and applied in contemporary Jewish law. The methodology of historical contextualism—not commonly used in halakhic discourse—is employed to reconstruct the historical meanings of kevod hatzibbur in distinctive historical contexts.
In talmudic literature, the fear of violating the dignity of the community corresponded to a fear of violating the "masculinity" of the ritual setting of the Torah reading ceremony. By way of extension, the violation of the Torah scroll is related to its anthropomorphosis in talmudic culture. Thus, fears of sexual impropriety might apply not only to the possible violation of the ritual setting by the inclusion of women, but also to the inappropriate handling of ritual artifacts whose public meanings are gendered as well. In medieval Ashkenazi literature, the gendering of the ritual situation came to be associated with its sanctity. Ultimately, the violation of the masculine setting banished the divine presence—the kavod—from the synagogue.
Those who continue to object to the participation of women in the Torah reading ceremony today must recognize that their halakhic understanding perpetuates highly specific values found in particular historical contexts. Given that contemporary notions of women and gender are (or at least should be) different from those in the past, it seems appropriate to argue that the exclusion of women from reading the Torah constitutes an indignity that, perhaps ironically, demands correction as prescribed by the talmudic principle of kevod hatzibbur.