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  • Introduction Sex, Violence, Motherhood and Modesty: Controlling the Jewish Woman and Her Body
  • Rachel S. Harris (bio)

In the introduction to Unveiling Eve, her study of gender in medieval Hebrew literature, Tova Rosen provides us with a key metaphor to understanding the starting position for this issue of Nashim on “The Jewish Woman and Her Body.”1 Rosen considers women’s placement in a synagogue and its use as an analogy by Israeli women writers for their reception in mainstream Israeli culture. Within the religious sanctuary, women are seated at the margins—to the side, at the back, on a balcony, behind a curtain—praying privately and separated from the central activities of the service (carrying the Torah, reciting from the sacred books, leading the congregation in prayer). Rosen’s discussion offers us an opportunity to identify points on a historical timeline for the consideration of Jewish women’s bodies. The traditional, textual Jewish past is concerned with the centrality of the male position, with the man’s role within Judaism and his importance to the hegemonic structure, which must constantly be replayed in rituals of sanctification. Women, if and when they are considered at all, are purposefully sidelined and contained, their bodies subject to regulation. Their very presence offers the possibility of contamination and disruption. This can be seen not only in their position in the synagogue, but also in the extended discussions of women’s bodies, duties and purposes within traditional Jewish texts.

Yet Rosen’s example of the Israeli women writers points to the simultaneous existence of a woman’s world—a space in which female discursive practices engaged with those of the male world but were not solely governed by them. Rosen’s ability to point to this phenomenon in the medieval past, and to open up texts from the past for a new gendered consideration in the present, marks somewhat of a departure from the fixed and once-dominant position of female exclusion. Just as there are streams of Judaism today that invite women to sit alongside men and even to serve in the same authoritative religious positions that were once held only by males, so, too, is there a growing presence of women in the public discourse. Nevertheless, the question remains as to whether, at some future time, women will no longer be either [End Page 5] subordinated or paralleled to male positioning, but will instead gain an independent space—one that enjoys the public recognition of the male discourse but is not in a binary relation with it.

This issue of Nashim emerges from a conference that I co-chaired with Helene Sinnreich on “The Jewish Woman and Her Body,” held on March 7–9, 2010, at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio, and sponsored by the University’s Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies through the generosity of the Mr. and Mrs. William B. Clayman Endowment Fund. In a conversation about our research in 2007, Helene and I shared our concerns about the absence of an intellectual space in which a discussion about women’s bodies was permitted and open. At the time I was working on the ways in which the representation of women’s suicides in Israeli literature reinforces the national (and social) expectation of motherhood, and she was dealing with the rape of Jewish women in the Holocaust. Despite the differences between our disciplines, intellectual interests, academic training and physical locations, it emerged that we had both met repeatedly with formal and informal resistance in our discussions with colleagues and in our attempts to publish our research. We hoped through a conference to explore women’s bodies, their treatment, their exploitation, and the ways in which women have chosen to empower them; to move past social taboos and to form a community of like-minded scholars.

Out of those first conversations, the presentations at the conference and the articles that comprise this issue, I have come to understand that control lies at the center of any discussion of a Jewish woman’s body. Though Helene and I were heirs to the multiple strands of a well developed women’s movement, it seemed that, in our scholarship and in our...


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