Women in Rabbinic Literature

The rabbis of the Talmud designated specific female roles and activities, and were wary of women's nature, but they also tempered biblical laws that caused hardships for women.

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As [the Babylonian Talmud, or BT, in] Berakhot 17a relates, women earn merit "by sending their children to learn in the synagogue, and their husbands to study in the schools of the rabbis, and by waiting for their husbands until they return from the schools of the rabbis."

This remains the case even as rabbinic jurisprudence goes beyond biblical precedents in its efforts to ameliorate some of the disadvantages and hardships women faced as a consequence of biblical legislation, devoting particular attention to extending special new protections to women in such areas as the formulation of marriage contracts that provided financial support in the event of divorce or widowhood and, in specific circumstances, in allowing a woman to petition a rabbinic tribunal to compel her husband to divorce her. […]

Negative Traits Ascribed to Women

Woman's otherness and less desirable status are assumed throughout the rabbinic literature. While women are credited with more compassion and concern for the unfortunate than men, perhaps as a result of their nurturing roles, they also are linked with witchcraft (Mishnah Avot 2:7; Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin 4, 66b), foolishness (BT Shabbat 33b), dishonesty (Genesis Rabbah 18:2), and licentiousness (Mishnah Sotah 3:4, and BT Ketubot 65a), among a number of other inherent negative qualities (Genesis Rabbah 45:5).

Sometimes the secondary and inferior creation of women is cited as explaining their disagreeable traits (Genesis Rabbah 18:2); elsewhere Eve's culpability in introducing death into the world accounts for women's disabilities in comparison to male advantages (Genesis Rabbah 17:8). Aggadic [narrative] exegeses of independent biblical women tend to criticize their pride and presumption. Thus, the biblical judge Deborah is likened to a wasp, and the prophetess Huldah to a weasel (BT Megillah 14b); other biblical heroines are similarly disparaged, and women who display unusual sagacity often meet early deaths (BT Ketubot 23a).

Women do utter words of wisdom in rabbinic stories, but generally such stories either confirm a rabbinic belief about women's character, such as women's higher degree of compassion for others (BT Avodah Zarah 18a; BT Ketubot 104a), or deliver a rebuke to a man in need of chastisement (BT Eruvin 53b; BT Sanhedrin 39a).

The Case of Beruriah

Both qualities are present in traditions about Beruriah, the wife of the second century C.E. rabbi, Meir, known for her unusual learning and quick wit (BT Pesahim 62b, BT Erubin 53b‑54a). Yet Beruriah's scholarship was a problem for rabbinic culture, and in later rabbinic tradition she is shown to reap the tragic consequences of the "lightmindedness" inherent in woman's makeup: in his commentary on BT Avodah Zarah 18b, Rashi ([the pre-eminent] eleventh-century [Bible and Talmud commentator]) relates that Beruriah was seduced by one of her husband's students and subsequently committed suicide.

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Judith Baskin

Judith Baskin is the Director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies and a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon.