- The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition
Although some might suggest that this topic has been flogged to death, Isaac Sassoon's book, especially its use of the feminist perspective, makes a fresh contribution to the field. Sassoon has set himself a two-fold task in this study of the status of women in the Bible and rabbinic literature: first, to identify the ideological ingredients of the text, as he argues that judicial sources are "usually underpinned by Weltanschauung and credo" (x); second, to demonstrate the multivocality of Jewish tradition: to acknowledge "heterogeneity within the canon" (xv). Although the latter may seem a trivial [End Page 151] claim, it is in harmony with the ideology of his book, which accepts "as a given that equality is morally superior to inequality" (xii). By attempting to identify voices within ancient tradition that go against the grain and by presenting hermeneutical alternatives to accepted views, Sassoon completes the circle. I suspect that one of his main, albeit unstated, objectives is to argue that if an ideology or belief has been proven false, or is not shared by contemporary society, then there is no necessity to accept the halakhic rulings that derive from this ideology. Moreover, if essentialist ideologies and stereotypes for women are anchored in a historical, time-bound setting and, on the other hand, intrinsic equality between men and women is a foundational belief to some extent and for some authorities, Jewish tradition can then contain, in principle, gender justice for women.
Sassoon embarks on his mission by presenting a meticulously researched, wide-ranging, unapologetic inquiry into three subjects: monogamy, the commandments, and the question of intrinsic equality betwen men and women. These comprise some of the major issues through which the status of women in Judaism is usually examined.
Part 1 is devoted to monogamy. Here the thrust of Sassoon's argument is that, notwithstanding the widespread assumption that Jewish sources permitted polygamy until the eleventh-century ban of Rabbenu Gershom Meor Hagolah, a close reading of Leviticus 18:18, supported by the Qumranic Damascus Document, convincingly demonstrates that monogamy can be viewed as the scripturally required option. Sassoon subjects the sources to a careful analysis and points out the advantages and disadvantages of each option, and though he does not himself take an explicit stance, his opinion is clear.
Part 2 treats the broad issue of women and the commandments. As opposed to the usual treatments of this issue, which start with the mishnah exempting women from time-bound commandments (m. Qiddushin 1:7), Sassoon takes as his starting point the statement by Rabbi Hanina son of Aqashia, "The Holy One, blessed be he, wanted to give merit to Israel. Therefore he gave them abundant Torah and numerous commandments" (m. Makkor 3:16). This is significant, because it demonstrates Sassoon's unapologetic way of stating that being commanded endows merit. Thus, it is not possible to simply sweep the problem of women being exempted from commandments under the rug by employing the usual clichés offered by Orthodox Judaism, including the supposed spiritual superiority of women, which means they have less need to perform all the commandments, or [End Page 152] that their role as mothers outweighs the importance of fulfilling certain commandments. Sassoon takes no shortcuts here. Again, he discusses a wide range of sources and, using a close reading, identifies the underlying ideologies and the heterogeneity of the sources.
It is part 3, however, that I personally found most interesting and refreshing. Devoted to the most fundamental issue at stake—did the rabbis consider women intrinsically equal to men—his starting point is the law of the Qatlanit. According to this law, if a woman was married twice in succession, and each time her husband died, she cannot marry a third time (or a fourth, according to some opinions). There is, however, no parallel ruling in the case of a man, if the women he was married to died in succession. The fourteenth- and fifteenth-century codes, the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh, even state this...