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The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition, by Isaac Sassoon. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 200 pp. $85.00.
Although some might suggest that this topic has been flogged to death, Isaac Sassoon’s book, especially its use of the feminist perspective, makes a fresh contribution to the field. Sassoon has set himself a two-fold task in this study of the status of women in the Bible and rabbinic literature: first, to identify the ideological ingredients of the text, as he argues that judicial sources are “usually underpinned by Weltanschauung and credo” (p. x); second, to demonstrate the multivocality of Jewish tradition: to acknowledge “heterogeneity within the canon” (p. xv). Although the latter may seem a trivial claim, it is in harmony with the ideology of his book, which accepts “as a given that equality is morally superior to inequality” (p. xii). By attempting to identify voices within ancient tradition that go against the grain and by presenting hermeneutical alternatives to accepted views, Sassoon completes the circle. I suspect that one of his main, albeit unstated, objectives is to argue that if an ideology or belief has been proven false, or is not shared by contemporary society, then there is no necessity to accept the halakhic rulings that derive from this ideology. Moreover, if essentialist ideologies and stereotypes for women are anchored in a historical, time-bound setting and, on the other hand, intrinsic equality between men and women is a foundational belief to some extent and for some authorities, Jewish tradition can then contain, in principle, gender justice for women.
Sassoon embarks on his mission by presenting a meticulously researched, wide-ranging, unapologetic inquiry into three subjects: monogamy, the commandments, and the question of intrinsic equality betwen men and women. These comprise some of the major issues through which the status of women in Judaism is usually examined.
Part One is devoted to monogamy. Here the thrust of Sassoon’s argument is that, notwithstanding the widespread assumption that Jewish sources permitted polygamy until the eleventh-century ban of Rabbenu Gershom Meor Hagolah, a close reading of Leviticus 18:18, supported by the Qumranic Damascus Document, convincingly demonstrates that monogamy can be viewed as the scripturally required option. Sassoon subjects the sources to a careful analysis and points out the advantages and disadvantages of each option, and though he does not himself take an explicit stance, his opinion is clear.
Part Two treats the broad issue of women and the commandments. As opposed to the usual treatments of this issue, which start with the mishnah exempting women from time-bound commandments (m. Qiddushin 1:7), Sassoon takes as his starting point the statement by Rabbi Hanina son of Aqashia, “The Holy One, blessed be he, wanted to give merit to Israel. Therefore he gave them abundant Torah and numerous commandments” (m. Makkor 3:16). This is significant, because it demonstrates Sassoon’s unapologetic way of stating that being commanded endows merit. Thus, it is not possible to simply sweep the problem of women being exempted from commandments under the rug by employing the usual clichés offered by Orthodox Judaism, including the supposed spiritual superiority of women, which means they have less need to perform all the commandments, or that their role as mothers outweighs the importance of fulfilling certain commandments. Sassoon takes no shortcuts here. Again, he discusses a wide range of sources and, using a close reading, identifies the underlying ideologies and the heterogeneity of the sources.
It is Part Three, however, that I personally found most interesting and refreshing. Devoted to the most fundamental issue at stake—did the rabbis consider women intrinsically equal to men—his starting point is the law of the Qatlanit. According to this law, if a woman was married twice in succession, and each time her husband died, she cannot marry a third time (or a fourth, according to some opinions). There is, however, no parallel ruling in the case of a man, if the women he was married to died in succession. The fourteenth- and fifteenth-century codes, the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh, even state this explicitly: “A woman who was married twice and whose husbands both died shall not marry a third [husband] . . . A man whose two wives died does not [or need not] abstain from marrying [again]” (p. 125, n. 6). On the surface, this ruling does not indicate equality, but, loyal to his task of uncovering the hidden, underlying concepts, Sassoon delves deeply and proves that the source of this imbalance is the rabbis’ belief in a unique quality relevant only to women and not to men, at least according to the thirteenth-to-fourteenth-century figure, the Rosh. “If this disposition were endemic to men as it is to women, then it is impossible that the sages would not have addressed it. For since the measure they took was to protect life, they would have protected the life of a woman the same as the life of a man. But the Talmudic sages were convinced that this disposition is endemic only to women . . .” (p. 126 n. 10). By highlighting the Rosh’s opinion, Sassoon accomplishes two aims: first, he exposes the essentialist assumption that women’s nature differs from men’s and accordingly they cannot claim discrimination, because a corollary of this difference is differential treatment; second, he again established the heterogeneity of the sources.
As stated in the opening, I believe that this type of inquiry has great value; it does, however, have some problematic aspects. Sassoon’s methodology reminds me of an article by Cynthia Ozick from the early 1980s: there she made a claim (challenged by Judith Plaskow) that the problem of women in Judaism is not theological, not inherent in the essence of Jewish tradition, but “merely” sociological, grounded in various influences that found their way into the Jewish world, especially ideologies or superstitions regarding women. Because they are not intrinsic to Judaism, but rather culturally and historically bound, they can easily be repaired (see On Being a Jewish Feminist: A Reader, ed. Susannah Heschel [New York: Schocken Books, 1983]). In my view, this is not the reality in the Orthodox world, where contemporary decisors grasp what we view as time-determined beliefs or conceptions as the eternal truth. A case in point is the debate over the notion of “kevod ha-tsibbur” (congregational dignity) in relation to women reading from the Torah in synagogue, which Ozick views as easy to overcome but which sparked a backlash among Orthodox rabbis. If Sassoon thinks (as I suggest he does) that his inquiry can chart a path to more egalitarian concepts today, I believe he is mistaken regarding halakhic Judaism. If his goal was simply to demonstrate that rabbinic literature can be read as suggesting gender justice, at least to some degree and for some authorities, and that this literature possesses diversity, he has accomplished his goal; but this in turn exposes him to an accusation of triviality. From the feminist perspective, in addition, there is much more to be stated regarding essentialism as a tool for achieving dominance. Listening carefully to MacKinnon, it is understandable why contemporary halakhic leaders are unwilling to relinquish essentialism. If women are grasped as different, then they are always different from men, who tend to serve as the norm. Also, equality (at least according to the accepted Aristotelian notion) therefore requires different treatment for women, which perpetuates and fixes their traditional roles. Also pertinent to the broader discussion is the widespread tendency to explore the world view of classical Jewish sources regarding women without reference to modern or contemporary halakhah.
The Gender Studies Program
Bar Ilan University