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  • Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature by Gail Labovitz
  • Julia Watts Belser (bio)
Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature, by Gail Labovitz. Lantham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009.

In Marriage and Metaphor, Gail Labovitz provides an illuminating analysis of the metaphors that structure and shape rabbinic conceptions of marriage. She draws on the cognitive metaphor theory of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who understand metaphor as the primary means through which humans reason and imagine. Metaphors profoundly structure our lives, shaping and constraining our knowledge and imaginations. Accordingly, Labovitz argues that metaphors do not simply convey rabbinic ideas about gender, but that they serve as the central means through which a culture’s gender system is made. She probes the implications of the dominant rabbinic metaphor of marriage as an act of acquisition and demonstrates the stark disparities of power and agency these metaphors encode.

In her first chapter, Labovitz analyzes how Mishnah Kiddushin situates marriage within the context of property [End Page 90] transactions. Acknowledging the fraught history of scholarship regarding rabbinic marriage, Labovitz eschews both apologetics and condemnation. Her emphasis on the capacity of metaphor to express both likeness and difference allows her to sidestep problematic binary oppositions. Rabbinic wives were simultaneously like and unlike slaves, and rabbinic marriage was simultaneously like and unlike the acquisition of property. Particularly exciting is her insight about how the acquisition-metaphor accounts for diverse rabbinic approaches to marriage: the designation of the wife as merchandise, the potential for marriage to be “a purchase made in error,” and the motif of the marketplace as a threat to men’s proper ownership of women.

In her second chapter, Labovitz examines an alternative rabbinic paradigm for marriage: the framework of kiddushin. While scholars have often read kiddushin as a later, more egalitarian turn away from an ancient purchase-model, Labovitz argues that the new paradigm does not undermine the power relationships of acquisition: the man still dedicates, while the woman becomes dedicated to him. Labovitz demonstrates that the shift toward the terminology of betrothal and sanctification does not actually replace the metaphor of marriage as acquisition. Instead, kiddushin reinforces ownership. Through their repeated comparison of betrothed women to property dedicated to the Temple, the rabbis justify and reinforce a husband’s right and obligation to set apart his wife and have sole use of her.

The third chapter analyzes two specific applications of the property metaphor: woman as field and woman as house. Building upon the excellent work of Cynthia Baker and Charlotte Fonrobert, Labovitz demonstrates how the rabbis use metaphorical transfers from the realm of agriculture and architecture to conceptualize marital sex and women’s bodies. Her insightful discussion of the shared sensibility that underlies rabbinic metaphors of women as house and field makes a strong case for her argument regarding the deep cultural significance of ownership-metaphor in rabbinic marriage discourse. Labovitz also makes a compelling case for the way these metaphors constrain women’s agency. Yet despite the disparities of power encoded by these metaphors, it seems that a few texts (such as the Bavli’s use of the “flooded field”) turn paradigms of acquisition to women’s occasional benefit. While this hardly challenges the broader structures of inequality produced and reinforced by these metaphors, it would be interesting to examine more explicitly the effect of metaphor on women’s material position within marriage.

In her fourth chapter, Labovitz argues that the legal status of women and slaves was deeply intertwined in both tannaitic and amoraic sources. She shows that the single significant factor linking slaves and wives is the paradigm of ownership: both are legally purchased possessions of a master/husband and both labor on his behalf. Labovitz provides a particularly helpful discussion of the similarities between divorce and manumission—underscoring the ways in which both occur solely at the man’s discretion and release the wife or slave from the man’s authority. Labovitz also emphasizes critical differences between wives and [End Page 91] enslaved persons, including the way a wife’s status as free entitled her to material support from her husband and granted her power over slaves. While a wife...


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