"The Defense Has Become the Prosecution:" Ezrat HaNashim, a Thirteenth-Century Response to Misogyny

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Ezer kenegdo--if he is worthy, she is a helpmate; if he is not worthy, she is an opponent against him--Rashi on Genesis 2:18

[1] Rashi's famous comment to Genesis 2:18 encapsulates the medieval view of women as simultaneously necessary and dangerous, and as both similar to and other than men. In pre-modern times, the debate over the appropriate classification of women formed an important part of religious and literary discourse among Jews, as well as among Christians and Muslims. Rabbinic literature devotes much energy to defining women's nature, physical characteristics, and sexual desires. From the time of the New Testament, Christian writers debate the compatibility of marriage with the Christian life. In the medieval Arabic-speaking world, literature devoted to the condemnation and defense of women becomes a genre unto itself. (2)

[2] The obsession with defining and evaluating women presumably stems from the identification of women as other in relation to the men composing works of literature and religious treatises. The ambiguous nature of the biblical Eve forms an important subtext for debates about women in Jewish and Christian literature. Christian biblical interpretation overwhelmingly blames Eve for introducing sin into the world, but also credits Mary with bringing about redemption. Christian writers thus find themselves constantly negotiating between these opposing models of womanhood. While ancient and early medieval Jewish commentary generally avoids defining Eve as the originator of sin, Jewish writers are certainly aware of the potential to understand Eve as evil. (3) The existence of Lilith in rabbinic literature testifies to the early ambivalence about whether women, in their original state, are good or evil.

[3] The debate about the nature of women--and the parallel debate about the nature of men--take many forms. This paper will not attempt a comprehensive study of these debates, but rather, will examine the manifestation of the debate over women in two thirteenth century texts, Judah Ibn Shabbetai's Minhat Yehuda Sone HaNashim and Ezrat HaNashim, a response to this work written by Isaac (4).

[4] Minhat Yehuda Sone HaNashim, written in Castile in the late twelfth/early thirteenth century purports to be a misogynist work although, as we will see, it is probably a parody of misogynist literature. Ezrat HaNashim, probably written in Provence in 1210, understands Minhat Yehuda as a serious misogynist work and sets out to defend women against the charges that Ibn Shabbetai levels against them. As much has already been written about Minhat Yehuda, we will focus on Ezrat HaNashim and explore the defense of women that this text presents.

[5] Minhat Yehuda begins with a heavenly figure appearing to Judah, the author, and asking him to compose a work that will dissuade other men from marriage. In the story that Judah writes, Tahkemoni, known for his wisdom, instructs his son Zerah to remain celibate rather than fall victim to women, identified as the source of all evil. Heeding his father's advice, Zerah, joined by three male friends, forms a celibate community of men, who eat, play, and study together. For a month each year, Zerah leaves this enclave and returns to his former home to preach celibacy. Under his influence, other men begin avoiding marriage. Upset by their new inability to find husbands, the women of the town ask Kozbi the witch to help them defeat Zerah. Kozbi selects a beautiful, talented and seductive woman, Ayala Sheluhah, to tempt Zerah. Through an exchange of poetry, Ayala Shluhah seduces Zerah and he agrees to marry her. During the wedding, Kozbi places a hag, Ritzpa bat Ayah, in the place of Ayala Sheluhah. Focused only on his desire for Ayala Sheluhah, Zerah pays no attention to the ketubah, and learns only the next morning that he has wed Ritzpa bat Ayah. Upon Zerah's announcement of his intent to divorce this woman, the women of the town protest and insist on bringing the case before the king. …