Mine and Yours Are Hers: Retrieving Women's History from Rabbinic Literature, by Tal Ilan

Article excerpt

Mine and Yours Are Hers: Retrieving Women's History from Rabbinic Literature, by Tal Ilan

Tal Ilan's important and ambitious methodological study suggests ways feminist scholars can extract historical evidence about women and their activities from rabbinic writings, an essentially literary collection of documents. While many scholars have rejected rabbinic literature as an historical source, citing the difficulty of dating and locating its component parts and lamenting the unreliability of rabbinic attributions of sayings and acts to specific individuals, Ilan believes reading these texts in new ways can retrieve historical information that expands knowledge about women. She chooses as her methodological case study the story of Rabbi Aqiva and his wife, versions of which appear in six different places in rabbinic writings. All of these accounts retain two common themes: R. Aqiva's wife helped her husband during his years of study, and R. Aqiva bought his wife an expensive gold headdress. While previous analyses have assumed the story is legendary, Ilan interrogates each narrative element to determine whether it belongs to the original tradition and whether it has significance historically.

Ilan establishes three sets of criteria, beginning with the need to establish a reliable text. Arguing that women are always anomalous in ancient literatures, Ilan believes editors, redactors, and scribes of rabbinic literature, at any of a number of later stages, excised female references as superfluous unless they were absolutely essential to the tradition; where women remain, their presence should be taken seriously. However, care must be taken. Ilan cautions that later commentators sometimes filled in textual lacunae with their own interpretations, many of which then became incorporated into later versions of the respective rabbinic passages. Here, Ilan cites Rashi's medieval adumbrations of obscure rabbinic references to events in the life of Beruriah, wife of Rabbi Meir. Although there is no evidence that Rashi's contention that Beruriah was seduced by one of her husband's students and later committed suicide has a rabbinic origin, his addition to Beruriah's story has long been assumed to derive from earlier aggadah.

Ilan also uses chronological and geographical criteria to measure the historical reliability of specific rabbinic traditions. Rabbinic literature has a tendency to link wellknown individuals by establishing fictitious relationships of kinship or propinquity which are often impossible chronologically. Thus, Rabbi Aqiva's wife is said to be the daughter of a famous plutocrat, Kalba Savua, even though the texts themselves indicate they lived in different centuries. In contrast, Ilan cites a reference in the Mishnah to an ornate headdress known as a "City of Gold"; discussing this passage, both the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds refer to an ornament Rabbi Aqiva made for his wife. In each case the transmitters of this tradition are early amoraim who flourished directly after the Mishnah was compiled, within a few generations of Rabbi Aqiva's time. Assuming the accuracy of these attributions and the Palestinian provenance of the tradition of the "City of Gold," Ilan argues on chronological and geographical grounds that it forms the earliest and probably most historically accurate stratum of the story about Rabbi Aqiva and his wife.

In the second part of her book, Ilan discusses the important role played by external sources in supporting the historicity of some rabbinic references to women. Mention of women weaving in the Temple, for example, is validated in pseudepigraphical writings, while discoveries in the Judean Desert of second-century deeds of gifts to women support rabbinic discussions of such bequests made prior to death. Similarly, Ilan suggests that traditions that Rabbi Aqiva's wife arranged her own marriage accurately reflect a known social reality in rabbinic times where women of poor families chose their own husbands, even if this wasn't actually so in her case. …