- Misogyny and Its Discontents
Judith Baskin's work Midrashic Women examines the way that women are presented in aggadic (nonlegal) rabbinic texts, concentrating on the rabbinic reshaping of biblical feminine figures as well as on more direct statements regarding women's nature, character, and status. After a general presentation of the thesis (chap. 1), Baskin examines rabbinic versions of the biblical Creation stories (chap. 2) and the vast aggadic material on Eve, the first woman (chap. 3). She returns to this issue at the end of the book (chap. 6), discussing the midrashic presentation of various biblical heroines-from Hagar and Sarah to the daughters of Zelophehad. In between, Baskin explores rabbinic attitudes toward family life, especially in the context of marital duties (chap. 4) and fertility (chap. 5). In what follows, I examine Baskin's book beginning with a discussion of her thesis and her treatment of the sources, then seeking to situate her approach against the backdrop of the scholarship on issues of gender in rabbinic literature.
Baskin's major thesis is that rabbinic interpretations of biblical stories function as explanations or justifications of the systematic discrimination against women and their exclusion from religious life. By locating these issues in the context of biblical interpretation (mainly of the stories of creation and the patriarchs in Genesis), the Rabbis present their views on these matters as ancient and authoritative truths, originating from time immemorial or even based on the order of creation itself, rather than as products of their own social policy. In a similar fashion, Baskin reads sources that discuss the differences between men and women in physiological and ontological rather than social terms (menstruation, circumcision, intercourse, and so on). Both, in her view, serve to neutralize criticism of discrimination, justifying it as an integral part of the human and even the cosmic order.1 [End Page 217]
This thesis is problematic in two ways. First, Baskin's explicit goal is to identify "predominant," "primary," or "privileged" (5) views about women in rabbinic literature. As much as rabbinic literature is multivocal and varied, "certain dominant themes emerge out of the multiplicity of opinion preserved in aggadic literature" (11). But Baskin does not reveal how those privileged views are to be identified.2 From the way the book is structured, it seems to be a question of quantity. In the course of the book, hundreds of sources are cited, mostly from the Bavli and Genesis Rabbah, but almost never from the Yerushalmi or tannaitic midrashim, a fact that seems odd in light of her efforts to survey general dominant rabbinic views, not only late or Babylonian (5-6).
Second, a more trenchant difficulty involves the explanatory value of Baskin's thesis. Women, Baskin claims, are marginalized in rabbinic social policy, as well as devalued as inferior (and even as defective and polluting) in aggadic statements, because of their extreme alterity in the sages' eyes (162). Women's "essential otherness"-sometimes presented by Baskin as emerging from "woman's disturbing physical otherness from man" (40)-provides the real basis for the rabbinic attitude toward them. This basic otherness is extended and abstracted in rabbinic discourse, established as theological and ontological certainties and converted into a social policy of exclusion and discrimination. But this does not explain much: by using psychological categories such as "essential otherness," Baskin has done little more than repeat the well-known platitude that the Rabbis were misogynists. But misogyny, in and of itself, cannot be regarded as an explanation; it is rather a phenomenon that demands explanation.3 By explanation, I do not mean apologetics or justification, but contextualization-an analysis that would locate it in a broader social, historical, cultural, or discursive context. Misogyny, like any other cultural phenomenon, does not function in a vacuum and, more important, does not manifest itself identically in every cultural context.4
The main weakness of this book, however, lies not so much in the specific thesis that it promotes as in the underdeveloped treatment of the sources...