- Maidens Love Thee: The Religious and Spiritual Life of Jewish Ashkenazic Women in the Early Modern Period
This fascinating and insightful book, based on an impressive array of material of different genres, aims to describe and characterize Jewish women’s religiosity within the Ashkenazi cultural realm in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. The book’s chapters address several key topics: women’s images in various Jewish sources, the life cycle, modesty, women’s religious role in the domestic sphere, their place in the synagogue, charity and women’s education.
I found Chapter 2, on the life cycle (childhood, marriage, childbirth and death), the most interesting. It offers numerous details about the lives of girls and young women, as they marry, give birth, are surrounded by friends, interact with the community and infuse various ceremonies with emotional and spiritual content.
Chapter 3, on modesty, is perhaps the most straightforward section of the book; mainly descriptive, it supports the instinctive image conjured up by the term “religious women”—God-fearing, virtuous and modest. Indeed, the primary requirement of women in the period is that of modesty, which was of utmost importance in the society’s religious reality (pp. 225–252). Beyond this strict duty, so we read, Ashkenazi women also displayed extraordinary spiritual behavior, such as sexual abstinence and pietism. Such phenomena usually characterized widows or older women, who were not preoccupied with child-raising and aspired to holiness, either via their own acts or by cleaving to Torah scholars (pp. 256–267). Such “virtuous women” sometimes took upon themselves extremely strict ritual observances, above and beyond the demands of the rabbis and sometimes to the latter’s discontent. This was especially apparent is their practice of the “women’s” mitzvot (commandments) of ḥallah (setting aside a portion of the dough) and niddah (the practices associated with menstrual impurity), but it occurred in other areas as well. Elsewhere in the book (pp. 323–325), other women’s customs are mentioned, such as abstaining from work on Rosh Ḥodesh (the New Moon) and while the Hanukkah candles burned. [End Page 186]
This chapter also deals with women’s mystical experiences, which recent research, in contrast to contradictory claims made in the past, has shown to have existed, particularly among the Spanish conversos and among the followers of Shabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank. Hovav, moreover, claims—against previous arguments by anthropologist Yoram Bilu—that the mystical experiences of men and women did not necessarily differ significantly; rather, identical phenomena may have been accounted for differently. Thus, experiences of spirit possession attributed to a dybbuk where women were concerned might have been described as the revelation of a maggid when they occurred in men (pp. 280–281).
Chapter 4, on the domestic sphere, focuses on the married woman, the mistress of the home, who was responsible for breadwinning, education and running the household. The mature housewife expressed her religiosity in her supervision of the other members of the household, in her observance of the “women’s mitzvot” and in the spiritual values and content she attached to her daily activities.
Among the important and interesting discoveries regarding women’s place in the synagogue presented in Chapter 5, we learn that women’s presence in the synagogue seems to have increased in the sixteenth century, first in Ashkenaz and later in Poland. This is evident from the integration of the women’s section into the building when new synagogues were built and old ones renovated (p. 341). We also learn that women attended prayers only after they were married (pp. 342–348); that the custom of women not going to the synagogue during their menstrual periods gradually disappeared (p. 352); that women engaged in rich semi-independent liturgical activity (pp. 369–373); and that there was a marginal phenomenon of women observing typically “male” mitzvot, such as wearing a tallit or reciting the mourners’ Kaddish (pp. 378–384).
Chapter 6 reveals an entire realm of charity run by women, who...