Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Did Jewish women's lib peak in the twelfth century?

I am thoroughly enjoying Elisheva Baumgarten's Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe. In the chapter I just finished, for example, she discuses the medieval circumcision ceremony in Ashkenaz communities. Baumgarten, a lecturer at Bar Ilan, explains that in the twelfth and thirteenth century, the sandek -- then known as a ba'al brit -- was actually often a ba'alat brit, or a woman. She would wash the baby, bring him into the synagogue, and hold him on her lap in the synagogue (in the male section) while he was being circumcised.
After the thirteenth century, the woman becomes absent from the men's section during the ceremony, and the term 'ba'alat habrit' refers to the wife of the 'ba'al habrit,' whose role simply consists of bringing the baby to the synagogue door. This followed a ruling by the Maharam, R. Meir of Rothenburg, who objected to women adorned with jewels entering the men's section, and objected to women 'snatching' mitzvot from men.
To put things in context, Baumgarten explains that in general, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there is lots of evidence of women taking upon themselves 'obligations that were traditionally male... among them, the donning of tefillin and zizit' -- and even, perhaps, acting as the mohel(et) -- although clearly, women acting as ba'alat brit was by far the most common of these, probably the only one which really was common.
"During the course of the thirteenth century, the Hebrew sources begin to express discomfort with women's adoption of such practices, and the objections became more prevalent.... The objections to women performing a variety of ritual activities -- ba'alot brit, tefillin and zizit -- as well as the question of the kind of blessing they were allowed to make when performing the rituals, were all widely discussed during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries."
Putting this in an even wider context, she explains that a similar process took place in the Christian world, where
"following a period of relative religious freedom for women, as is evident in the growth of lay piety and female orders in the twelfth century, church authorities of the thirteenth entury were determined to curb women's opportunities and especially their religious functions. Thus, for example, women who tried to preach were gravely reproached. Many of their religious practices, including fasting andother devotions, were criticized."
Could it be -- that in some spheres, the golden age for Jewish women was not the twentieth or twenty-first, but the twelfth century?

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