- Gendering the Jewish Past
In the essay that serves as the introduction to Gendering the Jewish Past, historian Pamela Nadell casts this new anthology against the backdrop of previous work in the field, specifically Feminist Perspectives on Jewish Studies (1994), edited by Lynn Davidman and Shelley Tenenbaum. The first work of its kind, Feminist Perspectives endeavored to assess the ways in which feminist analysis had thus far transformed the various disciplines within Jewish Studies. Although each of the contributors reported enthusiastically on the feminist work that had been undertaken within their chosen areas of specialization, most lamented the paucity of feminist materials and regretted that "there has been little integration of feminist knowledge" (p. 3).
Eight years later, the picture has changed considerably, a transformation eloquently marked by this collection. There is much to celebrate in Gendering the Jewish Past, not least of which is the intelligence and originality of each of the articles. If, as Davidman and Tennenbaum suggest, feminist/gender analysis entails a "skepticism toward established knowledge" (Feminist Perspectives, p. 3), the essays in this volume cast that skeptical eye and insist on looking at new data or looking differently at old data. Though each of the authors speaks from his/her particular corner of the Jewish Studies world, all of them share a marked desire to shatter misconceptions or nuance previously accepted arguments. No proposition, even a deeply held axiom of feminist theory, is exempt from this process of reconsideration. Together, these articles demonstrate the ongoing power of gender analysis to serve as a vehicle through which to examine and re-examine accepted scholarly truths. [End Page 252]
It is important to note that while Davidman and Tennenbaum use the terms "gender studies" and "feminist studies" interchangeably (as I have done up to now in this review), the various contributors to Gendering the Jewish Past are generally concerned less with feminism as a women's movement than with gender as a construct and tool of scholarly analysis. Rather than offering works of scholarship that critique the position of women in Jewish culture, place women at the center, or concentrate on women's experiences, they endeavor to decode the various ways in which concepts and notions such as blood, marriage and divorce, assimilation, Zionism, labor, remembrance, biblical interpretation, translation, and self-government have been constructed and construed along gender lines, both masculine and feminine.
David Biale's essay, "Does Blood Have Gender in Jewish Culture," exemplifies the best of what this new volume has to offer. One way to measure scholarly advancement is by the willingness of scholars to reconsider established tenets. This kind of reassessment happens over and over in Biale's essay. One of the most oft-cited articles in gender theory is anthropologist Sherry Ortner's "Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?" (1974). Ortner endeavored to uncover a deep sociological structure to account for the "pan-cultural second-class status of women," by pointing to the universal tendency to associate women with nature (a lesser, uncontrolled, animalistic realm, connected to the body and bodily pollutants) and men with culture (a higher, transcendent, controlled realm, connected with the intellect, the spirit, and other purifying agents). Following Ortner, scholars such as Howard Eilberg-Schwartz and Leonie Archer attempted to uncover a gendered pattern in biblical and rabbinic understandings of male and female blood. If female is to male as nature is to culture, then in Judaism, female blood (the blood of menstruation and of childbirth) is "associated with pollution because it is uncontrolled bleeding, while male blood or blood spilled by men—the blood of circumcision and animal sacrifices—is controlled and, if spilled properly, does not pollute" (Biale, p. 7).
No so, says Biale, who begins his article by citing a late thirteenth or early fourteenth-century Ashkenazi source that assigns salvific power to menstrual blood, thus showing that Ortner's nature-culture dichotomy might not be so relevant to the Jewish context. An important corrective, Biale's article shows how...