Medieval Jewish Women Were Leaders in Religion and Business

New information about the economic and religious lives of medieval Jewish women.

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Reprinted with the author’s permission from Hadassah Magazine (June/July 2002).

Medieval Jewish Women Were Neither Ignorant nor Powerless

Urania, daughter of Abraham, sang before female congregants in Worms. Another cantor, Richenza, is mentioned in The Memorial Book of Nuremberg. Dulcia, wife of Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, taught women prayer words and songs. While today female teachers and cantors hardly seem shocking, these women lived during the medieval era when, as has long been historically accepted, women held little power, leadership or communal roles.

This view is changing, and Avraham Grossman, a professor in the Jewish history department at the Hebrew University, is at the center of new thinking on Jewish women in the Middle Ages. He points out references to godmothers at their grandson’s circumcisions, as well as female ritual slaughterers. His book, Ha­sidot U’Mordot: Nashim Yehudi­ot B’Europa B’Yemei Ha’Bainaim (Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Europe in the Middle Ages, Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History), which will be published in English by Univer­sity Press of New England …., cites women wearing talitot [prayer shawls] and tefilin [phylacteries]. “There is also mention of synagogues for women,” he says. “The woman cantor stood next to the window, fol­lowed the men’s prayers and repeated it…out loud with a sweet melody.”

In Grossman’s modest Jerusalem apartment–his study boasts thousands of books neatly organized floor to ceiling–he recalls the months spent in the Cambridge and Oxford libraries poring over medieval Jewish manuscripts. About nine years ago, Grossman realized there were countless books on medieval women, but none on the Jewish women of that era.

Piety and Pursestrings

After an enormously painstaking amount of research–there are ­no writings by Jewish women of this period, everything must be deduced from what is written about them–he pieced together a new vision of Jewish society in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages. “When I began,” the tall, polite, scholarly Grossman says, “I assumed that I would find the medieval woman to be downtrodden. But the more I researched the more I realized that a revolution had taken place. Women were out ­there fighting for their rights in the home and community.”

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Rochelle Furstenberg is a Jerusalem-based journalist and critic. She has written extensively on Hebrew literature in a variety of books and periodicals, and has a regular column on Israeli life and culture in Hadassah Magazine.

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