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Reviewed by:
  • Marital Relations in Ancient Judaism
  • Dvora E. Weisberg
Marital Relations in Ancient Judaism, by Etan Levine. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2009. 349 pp. $115.00.

This book contains an impressive collection of traditions, biblical, antique, and rabbinic, about Jewish marriage. Levine opens with a discussion of kinship in ancient Israel, moves on to consider the home and the relationship of gender to legal status, and then devotes several chapters to marital love and sexual relations. Levine includes thousands of footnotes directing readers to a wealth of classical sources on marriage, both Jewish and non-Jewish. The book is a treasure trove of data about ancient Jewish maxims and attitudes about marital relations, and therefore it is of significant value as a resource to both scholars and non-academics.

Readers will need to work carefully through the book; many chapters are long, packed with detail, and not always clearly organized. In Chapter IV, for example, Levine discusses "Love as a Legal Construct," but in addition to offering a definition of what Judaism means (and does not mean) by marital love and discussing the role love plays in choosing a partner and maintaining a marriage, the chapter also deals with what to look for in a spouse, the institution of the marriage contract (ketubah), wives' contributions to the household economy, and divorce. Fortunately the book's table of contents contains both chapter titles and sub-titles of sections within each chapter, guiding the reader to topics of interest.

One overarching concern that careful readers of this book might find is the absence of a clear thesis or central question. As Levine acknowledges, a number of contemporary scholars have explored Jewish marriage and family life, producing excellent work on the topics Levine includes in his book. As a scholar in a field that has seen an increased amount of fine, contemporary scholarship published recently, the reader or purchaser of a book on Jewish marital relations in ancient sources—especially one as expensive as this volume—must ask herself, "What is new here?" By choosing not to engage recent scholarship, Levine makes it more difficult to answer this question.

In the prologue, Levine asserts that one of the factors that contributed to the survival of the Jewish people is its emphasis on family life. This seems like a reasonable statement, but is it enough to justify hundreds of pages discussing [End Page 176] sexuality, adultery, and love? In the epilogue, Levine characterizes his work as a historical study, but his work strikes the reader as ahistorical; he often uses biblical, second temple, and rabbinic texts to support an argument or assertion without drawing attention to any development or evolution of a practice or view. Levine himself acknowledges that "colleagues did alert me to the hazards of charting the sea of classical Judaica as if it were a corpus" (p. vii) but sets out "to prove [his colleagues] wrong"; I would suggest that his colleagues' warning was a sound one and his decision to ignore it leaves the reader with the idea that Jewish attitudes toward marriage and sexuality were essentially monolithic.

Levine states his intention to "refrain from massive citing, reviewing and critiquing of previous scholars" (p. viii) and he realizes this goal. However, in doing so, he weakens his book's value as a scholarly work, since the reader is never told what new information this book contributes to the study of Jewish marriage in antiquity. The book can be repetitive and at times contradictory. In Chapter III, Levine asserts that "Judaism extended women's inferior religious status to all spheres: communal, domestic, and personal" (p. 86) and that the Torah conveyed that women's inferior status was just (p. 85); he then argues that "[t]he Hebrew Bible elevated Woman's status to an unprecedented level" (p. 88). Absent some discussion of these apparently contradictory statements, or an argument that they represent different time periods, locales, or texts, Levine leaves his reader with no standard to weigh or balance the broad assertions that characterize this book.

My sense is that Levine set himself the task of writing an apologia for "traditional" or classical Jewish marriage. This is supported by the tone...


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