Chattel or Person?: The Status of Women in the Mishnah

by Judith Romney Wegner, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, 267 pp., $26

I approached this book with trepidation. Recent scholarly writings on women and Judaism, framing their question as “Is traditional Judaism sexist?” have suffered because the authors’ biases get in the way of the analysis of the text. Happily, Wegner, who is a lawyer and scholar of ancient cultures, does not have this problem. Her book, a dispassionate, academic, readable study of women’s legal status in the Mishnah (a compendium of legal teachings completed in Palestine in the third century CE) allows us to draw our own conclusions about the possibility of a more egalitarian Judaism.

It would be completely reasonable to assume, given history as we know it, that in a patriarchal society two millennia ago women were treated as chattel (that is, entities possessing no rights or responsibilities). It is surprising, then, to see in how many ways the rabbis recognized women as persons. For example, adult women in Mishnaic society could own property, make binding vows, be considered responsible for their actions and be taken to court — all indices of personhood and independent agency.

Needless to say, these examples are counterbalanced by numerous instances in which women were chattel. Fathers can sell their minor daughters into servitude until the age of puberty (this is not the case with sons); marriage and divorce can be initiated only by men; and husbands can subject their wives to a humiliating ordeal if they suspect adultery.

What is the principle that explains when women are persons and when chattel? In examining the inconsistencies, Wegner posits that women’s legal status changes when it comes to sex. Minor daughters, wives and women awaiting levirate marriage (that is, women described in terms of their sexual, or potentially sexual, relationships with men) are chattel — the property of their fathers, husbands and brothers-in-law respectively. Any infringement on these women’s sexuality (rape, for example) is an infringement not on the woman’s personhood, but on a particular man’s property. To put it differently, these women are not men’s property when it comes to arms, legs or noses, but when it comes to sexual body parts they suddenly become men’s property. In these instances the rabbis forget that women are people, too.

It follows that daughters over the age of twelve, divorcees and widows (that is, women who are not “owned” through sexual relationship to a particular man) are persons in all respects.

Wegner claims that certain restrictions on women (like those having to do with communal activities of the Temple and the synagogue) reflect what the rabbis felt in response to women’s sexuality: fear. The Mishnah records all sorts of precautions against men and women intermingling too freely, even if the occasion was a religious festival. Through their rulings, the rabbis indicate that they suspect women are more frivolous and less inclined to sexual morality than are men. The rabbis’ stress on menstruation as a source of serious cultic impurity is a further aid in restricting women. It becomes clear that without the safeguards that the rabbis enact, men would be endangered by women’s potent sexuality.

Because of the dispassion and fastidiousness of this book, it came as a surprise to me that Wegner has written something very provocative, far more provocative, perhaps, than she intended. She counts herself among those women who believe Judaism and feminism can be reconciled by changing Jewish law, but if Wegner’s thesis is correct, women cannot achieve equality in Judaism by legal changes alone. The status of women in Judaism is determined not only by the laws that apply to them, but by the way women are perceived by men, and furthermore by the way women perceive themselves.

The laws in the Mishnah concerning women do not exist in a vacuum. Admitting women to rabbinical school, for example, will not transform Judaism unless we acknowledge that the insights into Judaism these women possess are as valid as those of their male counterparts. The creation of a Judaism that reflects the concerns and contributions of all Jews is possible only when all Jews are perceived as persons, when differences between men and women are no longer used as justification for the exclusion of either from any aspect of Jewish life. Wegner’s book is disturbing because it forces me to confront some unpleasant facts. The Mishnah’s authors are not unique in their fear of women — it is still the case that religious equality for women threatens the male ego.

Judith Romney Wegner’s book is more than a scholarly analysis of a Jewish legal text. It challenges Jewish feminists to reconsider their goals and the efforts needed to achieve them.

Dvora E. Weisberg is a doctoral candidate in Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.