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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Contemporary scholars have shown that the scholarly Beruriah is a literary construct with little historical reality, yet they agree that the traditions about her articulate profound disquiet about the role of women in the rabbinic enterprise.

Rachel Adler suggests that Beruriah's story expresses rabbinic ambivalence about the possible place of a woman in their wholly male scholarly world, in which her sexuality was bound to be a source of havoc. Daniel Boyarin writes that for the amoraic sages of the Babylonian Talmud, Beruriah serves as proof of "R. Eliezer's statement that 'anyone who teaches his daughter Torah, teaches her lasciviousness' (Mishnah Sotah 3:4);" in rabbinic culture, he writes, "The Torah and the wife are structural allomorphs and separated realms…both normatively to be highly valued but also to be kept separate." […]

The Problem of Female Sexuality

Women constitute an additional source of danger in rabbinic thinking, because their sexual appeal to men can lead to social disruption.

A significant argument for excluding women from synagogue participation rests on the talmudic statement, "The voice of a woman is indecent" (BT Berakhot 24a). This idea emerges from a ruling that a man may not recite the Shema while he hears a woman singing, since her voice might divert his concentration from the prayer. Extrapolating from hearing to seeing, rabbinic prohibitions on male/female contact in worship eventually led to a physical barrier (mehitzah) between men and women in the synagogue, to preserve men from sexual distraction during prayer.

Indeed, viewing women always as a sexual temptation, rabbinic Judaism overall advises extremely limited contact between men and women who are not married to each other. This is to prevent inappropriate sexual contact, whether adulterous, incestuous, or simply outside of a married relationship.

The Autonomy and Ownership of Women

In her detailed study of the legal status of women in the Mishnah, Judith Wegner points out the role of women's sexuality. She demonstrates that in all matters that affect a man's ownership of her sexuality-‑whether as minor daughter, wife, or levirate widow--woman is presented as belonging to a man. In nonsexual contexts, by contrast, the wife is endowed with a high degree of personhood. Her legal rights as a property holder are protected, and she is assigned rights and privileges that are denied even to non‑Israelite males.

Notably, mishnaic legislation always treats as an independent "person" a woman on whose sexuality no man has a legal claim. Such an autonomous woman--who might be an emancipated daughter of full age, a divorcee, or a widow--may arrange her own marriage, is legally liable for any vows she may make, and may litigate in court. Free from male authority, she has control over her personal life and is treated as an independent agent.

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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.