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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 398-415

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When Women Walk in the Way of Their Fathers:
On Gendering the Rabbinic Claim for Authority

Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert
Stanford University

One [unspecified] time the government decreed that they [the Jews] should not observe the Shabbat, and that they should not circumcise their sons, and that they should have intercourse with their wives during their menstrual period.

--b. Meilah 17a, emphasis added

LATE ANTIQUE RABBINIC literature makes repeated references to decrees that were ordained by a "government" (variously designated but rarely specified historically) and that prohibit the observance of a list of Jewish practices. 1 In their emphasis on bodily rituals, such decrees seem intended to undermine the continuity of the Jews as a corporeal community, which is exactly the light in which rabbinic texts cast them. Traditional historicists have expended considerable effort on dating and contextualizing these decrees. 2 However, precisely because the rabbinic texts omit specific historical references, such as the names of rulers or locales, these efforts have more often than not been inconclusive. My intention here is not to comb the lists for historical references either to suggest an alternative chronology or to establish a specific historical context for these decrees. Rather, I intend to read these lists as rabbinic self-reflections, as indicators of what the rabbis considered to be the "essence" [End Page 398] of Judaism. By projecting the prohibition of these practices onto a hostile government, a government that self-evidently had stigmatized the practices in order to destroy the Jewish community, the rabbis emphasized how essential they were. Therefore, in their literary (as opposed to historical) context, these lists of prohibited practices direct the reader's attention to what the rabbis considered to be the heart of Jewish life.

The prohibited practices listed vary from text to text, but among the items singled out, circumcision appears quite prominently in almost every list. 3 With respect to circumcision, the talmudic list cited above is a case in point, but at the same time that list is exceptional because it also includes a reference to the biblical prohibition against sexual intercourse between a married couple during the wife's menstrual period. The only other reference to this prohibition in a comparable list, albeit indirect, is found in a Palestinian midrashic text, most likely dating to the second half of the third century c.e., which underlines the centrality of the practices listed therein: 4 "you find that anything for which Israel gave their lives has been preserved by them. But anything for which the Israelites did not give their lives has not been preserved by them. Thus the Sabbath, circumcision, the study of the Torah, and the ritual of immersion, for which Israel gave their lives, have been preserved by them. But such [institutions] as the Temple, civil courts, and the sabbatical and jubilee years, to which Israel was not devoted, have not been preserved among them." 5

In this text the reference to ritual immersion is attached to the three more conventional observances: Sabbath, circumcision, and Torah study. Ritual immersion, although possibly also involving men, was increasingly associated with women and with the biblical notion of menstrual impurity. In these two texts the rabbis elevated this particular biblical regulation of sexual behavior into the canon of essential Jewish (rabbinic) practices, practices [End Page 399] against which the Romans could be imagined to rule in their perennial effort to eradicate Jewish particularity. Regulating the sexual behavior of a husband and wife was thus part of the rabbinic attempt to generate and sustain norms of Jewish identity. In other words, the rabbinic struggle for Jewish difference in the Roman Empire was carried out on women's bodies as well as men's.

I emphasize this point here because some recent studies of Jewish identity in late antiquity, though methodologically sophisticated, have continued to designate circumcision as the identity marker of primary importance. 6 I do not mean to say that this...


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