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Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 9.1 (2005) 191-203

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Approaches to the Representations of Women in Rabbinic Literature

Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998
Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000
Tal Ilan, Mine and Yours Are Hers: Retrieving Women's History from Rabbinic Literature. Leiden–New York–Köln: Brill, 1997
Cynthia M. Baker, Rebuilding the House of Israel: Architectures of Gender in Jewish Antiquity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002
Miriam Peskowitz, Spinning Fantasies: Rabbis, Gender, and History Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997

The impact of modern feminism on academic Jewish studies, and the widespread recognition of the importance of gender as a category of historical and literary analysis, have prompted a growing number of contemporary scholars to look seriously and in diverse ways at the status and representation of women in the complex and multi-stranded literary documents of rabbinic Judaism. [End Page 191] In this review essay I discuss five representative scholarly works of the past decade that take different methodological approaches in investigating the ways in which women figure in rabbinic literature.1

Far from monolithic in the views and attitudes expressed within its canon, rabbinic discourse preserves a variety of competing interpretations and opinions, privileging majority views but preserving minority opinions as well. Given this complicated heritage, it is not surprising that rabbinic literature is similarly diverse in its attitudes towards women and their activities. Regardless of how they are expressed, however, what unites this plethora of opinions is an underlying conviction that "women are a separate people" (BT Shabbat 62a), differing in legal and social status, as well as in inherent capacities, from men. As several of the volumes discussed below delineate, the rabbinic vision of women's appropriate place and activities in Jewish society often bore little relation to the actual realities of women's lives in the times and places in which that vision was constructed. However, the conviction of female alterity and women's secondary status to men that permeates these foundational documents became decisive in shaping and constraining female possibilities in Jewish life and practice for the millennium and a half that followed the codification of the Babylonian Talmud.

A Multivocal Halakhah

While most contemporary scholars affirm the androcentric nature of rabbinic writings, a growing number of sophisticated researchers have nonetheless endeavored to distinguish within this immense and multivocal literature voices supportive of expanded human and legal possibilities for women. Some scholars, reading against the grain, similarly hope to tease from selected passages evidence of women's voices and female strategies of resistance against the male hegemony characteristic of rabbinic social policy. There are those readers, as well, who seek inspiration from active Jewish women of the past for contemporary efforts to refashion Judaism in such a way as to include and value female spiritual aspirations and intellectual contributions.

In Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice, Judith Hauptman focuses on the evolving status of women in Jewish law, from its biblical origins through its expansion and reshaping in the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds. Hauptman agrees with most feminist scholars that the [End Page 192] rabbis whose views are expressed in these works affirmed the patriarchal attitudes of their larger cultural settings and perpetuated women's second-class, subordinate status in social, religious, and communal life. However, she also maintains that rabbinic legislation introduced numerous significant and innovative measures to ameliorate various aspects of women's lives. Hauptman's scholarly methodology is based on examining specific rabbinic passages with full attention to the larger documents of which they are a part, and in the context of prior and contemporaneous texts that discuss the same legal issues. She is committed to eliciting meanings from the passages at hand, rather than imposing meanings upon them.

Hauptman is aware of the contemporary implications of her endeavor and explicitly addresses the question...


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