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  • “My Father, The Rabbi”:Images of the Pre-Geonic Rabbinate’s Paternal Authority
  • Jonah Rank (bio)

A Patriarchal Rabbinate?

Many books have been written about gender constructs implicit within biblical and rabbinic literature—often with an eye on how patriarchal societal norms affect the bodies and cultural participation of women in early Jewish or Israelite society.1 Such scholarship often examines language, narrative, and law (or lack thereof) that differentiate Jewish females from Jewish males in Jewish literature. Jewish gender studies have rarely examined, beyond effects on women, social or political implications of the rabbinate [End Page 107] as an utterly masculine collective.2 Despite the vast literature on gender and Judaism, and despite the fact that the word “patriarchal” often describes men’s domination in a society, few scholars have examined the implications of a patriarchal rabbinate. Hardly any explore what it means for the rabbinate to have been a paternal inheritance for Jews, or for the rabbi to have (or have had) a fatherly role in Jewish society.

This article sets out to analyze several instances in which the sages invoke their rights as religious authorities because they are the father. To limit our scope, we will focus mostly on statements attributed to teachers from the rabbinic circles preceding the geonic era (beginning in the late seventh century). This article is not comprehensive, and it refers to no detailed evidence of how Jews living under patriarchal rabbinic authority responded to its rabbis. Yet, it is hoped that the insights into rabbinic patriarchy presented here may encourage further investigation into the implications of a religion grounded in patriarchal language and imagery.

Who Is the Father?

Classic rabbinic literature often presumes the following social construction of a household: a father, a mother, offspring, and perhaps slaves. According to Mishnah Avot 5:25, boys become men (at age thirteen), men become husbands (at age eighteen), and husbands become fathers (age unspecified, but this could happen within one year of the marriage). If a stated norm does not specify who follows it—and if there is no reason to think other-wise—the norm would be applicable to all men who have reached the age of thirteen (less than six years away from potential fatherhood). Often, [End Page 108] after rabbis pronounce the obligations of a standard Jew (i.e., a man, most likely husband and father), another voice often clarifies if the law must, may, or must not be heeded by the household’s other members: nashim (women, wives and mothers), k’tannim (children, often boys and girls) and avadim (slaves, often men and women).3 The father of the household is the only emancipated ish (man and human), and the “father” is the head among scholars. In the Sanhedrin, it was the av beit din (literally, “father of the house of judgment”) who ranked first in knowledge among the seventy scholars who comprised the Jewish high court of Torah and justice.4 At the head of the home of the Torah’s interpretation and enforcement, and at the head of the homes of the Torah’s people, there always stood a father.

Heaven’s Sake—And the Rabbi’s, Like the Father’s

As far back as the Hebrew Bible, Jews and their ancestors have been instructed to feel yirah, or mora (both from the root yod-resh-alef, meaning “fear,” “awe” or “reverence”), toward Heaven (an allusion to avinu sheba-shamayim, “our Heavenly Father”—namely, God). However, given the ambiguity of the terms,5 it is no wonder that the earliest of rabbis felt compelled [End Page 109] to explain what constitutes yirah or mora (seemingly synonymous). Remarkably, in pre-geonic literature, the mora felt toward Heaven is ultimately compared both the mora felt toward rabbinic teachers and the mora felt toward parental figures.

In Avot 4:15, Rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua begins with a statement about kavod (variously understood to mean “dignity,” “honor,” “substance,” “esteem,” “eminence” or “weight”):

The kavod of your student shall be as dear to you as that [kavod] of your own, and the kavod of your peer as the mora of your rabbi, and the mora of your rabbi as the mora of Heaven...


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pp. 107-131
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