Medieval Jewish Women Were Leaders in Religion and Business

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

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.”

He found that women’s economic power sparked the change. A Jewish bourgeoisie had developed where men would travel for months, sometimes years, to Asia and Africa, while their wives ran the family businesses, supervising commercial dealings. They would go out to collect rents and interest on loans from the nobility. “It is quite amazing,” says Grossman, “that the rabbis looked the other way when women traveled to feudal lords to collect monies.” Because wealthy families endowed their daughters with large fortunes, they were able to remain independent. In many instances, a husband would will his estate to his wife, even though halakhah [Jewish law] prescribes that sons inherit the family assets and widows be taken care of by their children.
It was a period of great piety among women, when many were willing to die for Kiddush Hashem (to sancti­fy the name of God). According to accounts of the Cru­sades of 1096, women killed their children and themselves rather than convert or be captured. “The rabbis saw their courage, [their] strong religious emotion,” says Gross­man, “and this is evident in halakhic rulings.”

Grossman also points to the anomalous halakhic situ­ation that developed whereby a wife could demand a get, a religious divorce, from a husband who displeased her. “This takanah, legal reform, originated in Muslim coun­tries in 651 C.E. when it was feared that women seeking a divorce would convert to Islam to obtain one. But it extended into the late Middle Ages in Christian Europe, contradicting the rabbinic approach that says the husband must initiate the divorce.”

Rabbis Reined in the Rebels

At the end of the Middle Ages women’s privileged posi­tion began to diminish. The rabbis feared that women had become too arrogant, they saw them as mordot (rebels). Some refused to have sexual relations with their husbands or do chores, perhaps to bring about a divorce.

In contrast to common assumptions, Grossman notes, the divorce rate was very high in the medieval period. While in Sephardic communities there was an estimated 20 ­percent divorce rate, Grossman believes that among Ash­kenazim it was even higher, because women were easily able to obtain a divorce, and some were wealthy enough to support themselves.

With the rise in Christian persecution during the four­teenth and fifteenth centuries, the rabbis felt that the family structure had to be strengthened. This led to a flurry of new laws and customs affecting family life, marriage, and divorce. In German towns like Worms and Speier they ruled that a couple couldn’t divorce without permission from the rabbis of three communities. In some cases they threatened that divorced women would forfeit their fortunes.

Changing Focus Reveals New Information

Though Grossman has written a far-reaching work, he is only part of a revolution in Jewish his­toriography. Israeli historians, many of them wom­en, are digging into archives and seeking primary sources in folk material to unearth the active role women have played throughout the centuries. The view that men should be the primary focus in Jewish history–after all, they were the kings and priests, the community leaders and scholars–is slowly changing.

“It cuts across all period of Jewish history,” says Renee Levine Melammed, who teaches a graduate course on Jewish women in historical perspective at the Schecter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. “Students are amazed to discover that there was an independent entrepreneur who divorced her husband in Elephantine, Egypt, in the fifth century BCE, or that Asnat Barazani was a rosh yeshivah in seventeenth-century Kurdistan.

In Heretics or Daughters of Israel, Melammed explains that it was the women in Spain who during the Inquisition preserved Jewish identity and tradition.

Elisheva Baumgarten, a lecturer at Bar Ilan University, wrote her doctorate on “Mothers and Children in Medieval Ashkenaz.” She investigated rites and child-rearing practices from birth through school age and came across a well-known treatise called Chalei Ha’mila (Rules of Circumcision) written by a mohel. By focusing on three often overlooked pages where the mohel relates what Jewish midwives said about birthing techniques, she presents voices never heard previously.

According to an American woman historian who prefers to remain anonymous, “Israeli scholars have locked out the women historians who focus on gender study.” Grossman is unusual because he is the first Israeli male scholar to start asking questions about Jewish women’s roles…

For Grossman, it’s all a matter of asking the right questions. “As far as the Middle Ages,” he says, “once the questions were primarily about anti-semitism and religious thinking, and now historians are asking about women’s role.”


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