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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 375-397

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A Maidservant and Her Master's Voice: Discourse, Identity, and Eros in Rabbinic Texts

Dina Stein
Graduate Theological Union

[A] maidservant saw at the sea what Isaiah and Ezekiel and all the prophets never saw.

--Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Shirata 3

Reading the literature of Slavery, then, will also involve reading its exposure of the gaps and rifts in ideology, its capacity to let the unspeakable be spoken, to assert what it apparently denies.

--W. Fitzgerald, Slavery and the Roman Literary Imagination

RABBINIC LITERATURE is a cultural production in which social identities are negotiated and renegotiated. In part, this body of literature reflects the varying circumstances of its creation, spanning the period between the third and the sixth centuries and including texts from both Palestine and Babylonia. Whether viewed as an "arena in which society struggles for its identity" or as an "ethnographic practice," the rabbinic corpus does not present completely formed and finalized cultural identities. 1 Quite the opposite: rabbinic texts offer us a glimpse into the process of identity construction, and, by the same token, they reveal the precarious grounds on which distinct identities are imagined. [End Page 375]

The rabbinic corpus introduces, among its many players, two interrelated characters: Rabbi Judah the Patriarch and a maidservant in his court. 2 In this essay I examine a few of the narratives that involve the maidservant (and, explicitly or implicitly, her "master"), reading them as particularly revealing examples of the inherently relational quality of discursive dynamics. Reminded of Michel Foucault's famous words that "relations of power are not in a position of exteriority with respect to other types of relationships . . . but are immanent in the latter," I propose that these narratives are a case in point. 3 Social hierarchy, gender, and eros are the dominant and connected threads that are cunningly woven through these stories. Furthermore, these themes are enriched by the semantic potentials of figures like the maid and her master, prior to and beyond their deployment in the specific narratives that will be the focus of this essay.

First, the social-hierarchical aspect of the characters: one can be understood as an emblem of rabbinic authority in general, while the other can be understood as a "mute signified" on which the dominant discourse constructs and imposes its authority. For what could be set in more oppositional terms than "the" Rabbi (a man, a powerful leader, notoriously rich) 4 and a maidservant (a woman, a slave, devoid of any independent means)? 5 She does not even possess a name: her title defines her exclusively in relation to Rabbi Judah. 6 Yet, as we shall see, it is both [End Page 376] the potential contrast between the two and their close habitual proximity that render the maidservant a critical commentator on rabbinic discourse.

The narratives that include Rabbi's maidservant revolve around the point at which the constructed boundaries that separate maid and master, contingent upon a hierarchy of social categories, are blurred and violated from within. This could be explained, at least partly, by the disruptive quality embedded in the figure itself. For, as Hegel once pointed out, the master-slave relation contains a paradox where "total personal power becomes a form of total dependence on the object of that power." 7 The paradoxical nature of slavery can be seen from yet another angle: slavery has been equated with "social death," insofar as "the essential feature of slavery in any culture is not the legal status of the slave but his or her position as a 'socially dead' outsider." 8 Still, in other respects the slave is quite clearly alive, and "although it may seem that slavery operates only by de-humanizing slaves, a slave is useful precisely because he or she has the human attributes of knowledge, judgment, reasoning." 9 In other words, "the slave's place cannot be reduced to that of either a unique, validated subject or that of a fungible, commodified...


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