Jewish Studies At The University
Women and Womanhood in the Talmud
by Shulamit Valler
Were one simply to read certain texts as they appear in the Talmud, the narrative line might be clear; the reader, however, would not know how each story attained its final form nor how the individual stories coalesced into a collection. Yet it is these editorial alterations in which the deeper message of the text lies. The techniques developed for teaching and analyzing narrative passages help one to enter into the mind of the talmudic editor who assembled and shaped the different units and to understand his goals.
A close comparative reading shows that the editor reworked the old stories in order to have them express his own point of view. Upon joining the units together, the editor established linguistic and thematic links among them and then took advantage of the opportunity to restate his point of view.
In many anecdotes on matters pertaining to women, for example, the rabbinic judges rendered a decision that deviated from the rule prescribed for just such a case in the immediately preceding Halakhic discussion. What is astonishing is not so much that Rabbis develop laws and then do not apply them to cases that arise, but that the deviation from the prescribed rule in many cases favors women.
If after examining an issue from a variety of angles, the rabbis decided, for instance, that a woman living apart from her husband did not deserve a wine allowance, then the anecdotes that the Gemara presents should arrive at the same conclusion in conjunction with the Halakhic decision. In actuality, the collection of stories on this particular matter show that a decision on whether or not to award a wine allowance to a woman not living with her husband was determined by the woman’s past social and economic circumstances. In other words, the anecdotes reflect life as it was in fact lived.
Another collection of stories, this one about a wedding ceremony, shows that the Sages considered it so important to make brides feel happy that they departed from their usual behavior in order to achieve this aim. They were even ready to dance with the bride—in fact, to hoist her on their shoulders! Which may seem remarkable in a society in which it was—and is—deemed improper, indeed forbidden, for strangers of the opposite sex to touch at all.
Ancient Jewish society, like most ancient societies, was patriarchal, the legal bias in favor of men easily seen in the Halakhic texts. But this is an incomplete reading, as there are many departures from this reading. Similarly it is wrong to interpret the strict Halakhah as the essential, prescriptive statement and the conflicting anecdotes as exceptions to the rule. To grasp rabbinic attitudes fully as they developed over time, one has to read sources not only in context but also together with parallel versions.
This reading leads to a much more nuanced understanding of the patriarchy. Effectively the reality in which the rabbis lived and their attitudes toward women affected their legislative rulings. In fact, with the passing of time and as laws crossed geographical boundaries, adjustments to the law are introduced in practice, even though the statement of the law in principle is left untouched.
There are many hints that there were rabbis in the Talmud—and perhaps more important, the editors of the Talmud itself—who apparently had positive attitudes toward women, women’s rights, and women’s privileges.
Shulamit Valler, a Senior Lecturer in the Dept. of Jewish History, specializes
in talmudic literature. She teaches
in a new M.A. program, Literature of the Sages—Jewish History in the Second
Temple Period, the Mishna, and the Talmud.
The rationale behind this program is that studying talmudic literature
along with the history of the same period promotes a critical attitude, forging
a link with world culture and with the historical events that so strongly
influenced the world of the Talmud.