- Gender Studies and Medieval Hebrew Poetry
Tova Rosen's Unveiling Eve: Reading Gender in Medieval Hebrew Literature is a significant contribution to the field and one that has far-reaching implications for the way we read both the secular and liturgical works of the Hebrew Middle Ages. It is also the first work of its kind: an extensive study of medieval Hebrew literature done from the perspective of gender studies. Rosen's detailed readings take us from the secular and liturgical poetry of the Andalusian period (Muslim Spain, 950-1150) through the rhymed narratives and the secular poetry of various literary schools of the Christian-Spanish era (c. 1200-1497). To this rich mix, Rosen adds an important element from the Hebrew-Italian school of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries: the Mahbarot (rhymed narratives) of Immanuel of Rome.
In her first chapter, "No-Woman's-Land: Medieval Hebrew Literature and Feminist Criticism," Rosen presents the historical and literary background of the period as well as the theoretical and methodological assumptions on which she bases her readings. She follows these with a gender-oriented outline that enables the reader to comprehend the principal contours of the diverse body of texts that she investigates. In the seven subsequent chapters, she offers close readings that focus on different aspects of this outline. Some chapters deal with a single work (chapter 5), and others investigate a group of texts (chapters 3, 6, 7, and 8) or analyze the features of an entire genre from a feminist perspective (chapters 2 and 4). In the course of her detailed discussion of these aspects, Rosen meticulously unearths the [End Page 369] complicated textual network that surrounds them. She directs our attention to correlate texts and echoes of texts from Hebrew, Arabic, and European contemporary literary systems.
The main criterion guiding Rosen in the process of constructing the outline with which she opens her book is a detailed analysis of the ways in which the binary opposition between women's speech and women's silence is molded in poems and rhymed narratives of various genres. Rosen's decision to focus on this specific opposition is, of course, not accidental. The contrary values given to feminine speech and silence occupy a central position in patriarchal thought throughout the ages. The projection of this contrast on secular and liturgical Andalusian poetry—and on the rhymed narratives written mainly in Christian Spain—proves efficacious and reveals major generic features that traditional genre analysis overlooked entirely or whose significance it failed to appreciate.
For example, Rosen shows how three out of four of the central features of the beloved in the Andalusian love lyric—her beauty, her cruelty, the existential threat to which she exposes her lovers, and her powerful silence—are transformed radically in the erotic epithalamia by poets of the period. The silence of the beautiful beloved, which is the ultimate metonymy of her continuous rejection of the lovers' advances, is in these epithalamia replaced by the erotic speech of the bride directed to the bridegroom—a speech act that signals the commencement of their sexual relations. Correspondingly, misogynic elements typical of the silent beloved in love lyrics are deprived in the wedding poems of their devastating demonic power. But this happens only after they are explicitly displayed in the text. For example, the bride in Judah Halevi's "Halo ala" tries to calm the frightened bridegroom. She informs him that he should not be afraid of the metaphoric snakes curling in her hair because they are not meant to harm but only to arouse him: "And if you see my snake in the garden bed of my cheeks / approach, do not be frightened, I have placed him there to entice you."1 These same metaphoric snakes appear in the conventional love lyric as guardians whose function is to deter the lover from even daring to [End Page 370] approach the beloved. One should, of course, suspect the integrity of these disavowals in the erotic epithalamia even if they are spoken by the bride and...