Insiders or Outsiders: Women and Rabbinic Literature

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A NUMBER OF YEARS AGO, I INTERVIEWED FOR A POSITION teaching rabbinic literature at a seminary. The interview included an informal lunch at which students and faculty could ask any questions they chose. The first questioner was a young woman whom I shall call "Sarah." Sarah opened the discussion by asking, "How can you, as a feminist, teach such misogynistic texts?"

This question, which at the time appeared to amuse everyone in the room but me--presumably because they knew Sarah, while I only knew that this was an interview--seems to me to capture some of the most basic assumptions made about women who study ancient Judaism, about the texts that comprise canons, and about the relations between the two. Sarah assumed that I was a feminist and that, being a feminist, I could be expected to respond in certain ways to certain things. She also assumed that rabbinic literature is, at least in part, misogynistic. Finally, she assumed that my relation to the texts I was trained to study and teach was, at best, uncomfortable.

Since that day, Sarah's question has continued to occupy my attention. What I propose to do in this essay is to unpack both the question and my own responses to it. The first part of my inquiry focuses on assumptions about ways in which being a woman shapes my experience as a rabbinics scholar, now and during my years as a student. I then wish to address the way rabbinic texts portray women and the ways in which women perceive they are regarded by such texts. Finally, I want to consider and reevaluate the response I gave Sarah.

I should begin by acknowledging that I once believed that I shared few, if any, of Sarah's assumptions. I certainly see myself as a feminist, but I define feminism simply as the belief that men and women are entitled to equal access to opportunities. My feminism is the natural by-product of growing up in a home in which my brother and I were both encouraged to fulfill our potential. My experience as a child engendered the naivete that proved invaluable in later life; I was convinced that I could achieve whatever goals I set and it never occurred to me when setting those goals that being a woman would prove an impediment.

My sense of complacency should have been shattered by my earliest encounters with rabbinic literature. When I arrived at college, newly enamored of traditional Jewish ritual, I was met with comments like "The Talmud says that women can't...." or "You can't do that, because you're a woman." It became clear to me that knowledge of rabbinics represented a certain kind of power in traditional Judaism, and that given my ignorance of rabbinics I was comparatively powerless. At the same time, it was equally clear to me that such knowledge was accessible. I entered into the study of rabbinic literature with the sense that I was an outsider, but could become an insider. The terror I felt on the day of my first Talmud class had little to do with gender and everything to do with lack of skills (had my brother found himself in the same situation he would have felt equally bewildered). Day by day, line by line, discussion by discussion, I felt increasingly comfortable with what I was learning. By the time I entered graduate school, the sense of bewilderment had vanished.

Graduate school transforms an outsider into a fledgling insider. One begins with course work, and, constantly reminded that one knows nothing, learns from those who appear to know everything. Comprehensive exams, on one hand, first present themselves as long lists of strange material, knowledge still to be acquired. The completion of such exams provides, in addition to relief, a feeling that you possess a great deal of information about your chosen area of study. I took a series of oral exams requiring me to learn, among other things, hundreds of pages of Talmud. I felt physically ill the day of the exams, but when they had been successfully completed, I felt like a Talmudist. …