Saturday, December 11, 2004

Pious and Rebellious

I just finished reading Pious and Rebellious by Avraham Grossman, another fascinating book on Jewish women in the High Middle Ages in Europe and elsewhere.
Grossman shows how between 1000-1300, women's status within the Jewish community gradually improved. The main impetus for this was economic; as the Jewish community became more bourgeois, the women themselves helped out in their husbands' businesses, took responsibility for the businesses when their husbands went overseas, and earned their own money. Mostly as a result, they gained a lot of power at home and within their communities.
Grossman lists ten main improvements in their status, including acknowledgement of the woman's right to initiate divorce proceedings, not to be divorced against her will, a ban on polygamy (particularly important because husbands travelling abroad could take new wives in their absence), a relaxation of the prohibition against teaching Torah to women, the effective abolition of the prohibition against marrying a woman who has buried two husbands, and the imposition of the herem and corporal punishment upon physically abusive husbands (domestic violence was apparently rife, as women were seen in such a feudal society as being under their husband's authority, and as corporal punishment was regarded as an educational tool).
Another improvement he notes is women's increased share in performing the mitzvot. In particular, they struggled for the right to recite blessings over mitzvot aseh shehazman grama (time-linked positive commandments). Women also acted as sandak to new babies, were included (by some) in zimmun with men, allowed to act as mohelot and ritual slaughterers, and allowed, in principle at least (it's not clear to me whether this one ever happened), to receive an aliya and read from the Torah in small communities where there are only Cohanim.
In general, however, the picture Grossman paints is of extremely unstable family life. Some other interesting facts in his study:

  • Women were married at 12-16, sometimes earlier. They usually began married life living with their in-laws.
  • Whilst polygamy was not generally known in Ashkenaz, when the men started travelling on business to Muslim countries where it was known, they sometimes took second wives. Sometimes, they abandoned their first ones, leaving them agunot; in any case, as women brought more substantial dowries to their marriages, the fear of a second marriage -- and their fortunes being passed into 'unrelated hands' -- increased. Hence the ban on polygamy, and strict fines on husbands who abandoned their wives or their fiancees.
  • In Egypt in the 12th century, there was a widespread, well-organized rebellion of women who refused to use the mikveh, and followed the example of the Karaite women who sufficed with pouring water over their bodies at home or in the public bath houses. This continued for several years, encompassed thousands of women, and was only stemmed when Maimonides and his colleagues threatened that they would lose the money from their Ketubah. A similar, but less extensive phenomenon occurred in 13th century Byzantium.
  • Sexual licentiousness was rife, particularly in the upper levels of society. There is clear evidence of the existance and acceptance of Jewish prositutes (particularly in Spain), gentile maids having affairs with their Jewish masters, women whose husbands were away on business taking lovers, and a general atomosphere of sexual frivolity.
  • Whilst there are some examples of particularly learned women (eg. Rabbanit Asenath Barzani, who headed a yeshiva in Kurdistan, Dulca, the wife of R. Eleazar of Worms who died a martyr's death in 1196 and was an 'expert' in halacha, many women who copied Hebrew books and developed an expertise in halachic literature), the majority of women were illiterate in both Hebrew and the vernacular. There's lots of evidence that most women both prayed and read the haggadah in the vernacular because they didn't understand what they were saying in Hebrew. Women often davened in completely seperate rooms to the men and had female 'prayer leaders' who sang aloud for them.
  • Despite this, the women seem to have been unusually 'pious' and dedicated to Judaism. They seem to have taken a leading role as martyrs during the Crusades and other pogroms, and are given major credit for stopping their husbands converting, refusing to go with their husbands who did convert even if this left them 'agunot,' and killing their own children and spouses to save them from the Christians.
  • Divorce rate was at least 20% and was not stigmatised. The reasons for this include the early age of marriage, the improvement in the economic state of the women which made them less fearful of divorce, an improvement in women's status which contributed to their self-image and confidence, and increased mobility which meant that some women did not want to join their husbands who moved, particularly if they were very young and could easily marry again.

Whilst I haven't seen any reviews of this book in English (yet -- I'm going to review it together with the Baumgarten book for the Forward), it was an instant classic in Israel when it first appeared in Hebrew -- and deservedly so. It's published by Brandeis.

No comments: