Fair and Fowl: Reading the Talmud through Feminist Eyes

A few days ago I was learning daf yomi, the daily Talmud page, while nursing my daughter when I came upon the following Talmudic passage, which begins with a quote from the Song of Songs:

“‘Our little sister has no breasts.’ Rabbi Yohanan said: This refers to Eilam, who merited to learn but not to teach” [Pesachim 87a].

My infant daughter was lying bare-skinned against my breast, and I looked down at her as I puzzled over this passage. Why is having no breasts analogous to learning but not teaching? And then suddenly it dawned on me: I was breastfed as a child and I in turn went on to breastfeed my daughter. But my little daughter, who has no breasts (yet), can eat but cannot feed others. She is therefore like someone who learns (or imbibes) but cannot teach (or nurse) others. To my surprise, when I scanned the margins of my Talmud for this explanation, it was nowhere to be found in Rashi, Tosafot, or any of the traditional commentators. Was it the experience of learning while nursing — surely unfamiliar to any traditional (male) commentator — that led me to this insight? What else might we find in the Talmud when we read it through women’s eyes? This brings me to the subject at hand: A Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, a multi-volume series by leading scholars from around the world.

The Feminist Commentary series is the brainchild of Israeli-born historian and Talmudist Tal Ilan, who currently teaches at the Free University in Berlin. Each volume is dedicated to a feminist reading of one tractate (or a few consecutive tractates) of the Talmud; the first volume, on Taanit, was reviewed in Lilith shortly after its 2008 publication. The most recent volume, published this year, covers Tamid, Middot, and Qinnim, the final three tractates of the order of Qodshim, which deal with sacrificial offerings in the Temple. This volume is written by Dalia Marx, an Israeli-born Reform rabbi and liturgist who teaches at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. Marx considers each of these three tractates in turn, shedding light on gender issues and reading the text — which was composed by men 1500 years ago, and studied almost exclusively by men since then — through a woman’s eyes.

Marx takes us with her on a “literary pilgrimage” to the Temple, which she argues is the purpose of tractates Tamid and Middot. Middot deals with the dimensions of the Temple; Tamid deals with the daily activity within it. As Marx argues, not everyone merited to visit the Temple when it was standing, and it was only the High Priest who was permitted to penetrate the innermost sanctum. But these tractates made the interior of the Temple accessible to those barred from the priestly cult. Ironically, however, this was not true of women, who were historically excluded from the study house yet granted access to the Temple. Indeed, as Marx shows, women were allowed and encouraged to enter the Temple’s courts, and at certain times in life — after giving birth, or following an abnormal genital discharge, for instance — they were obligated to enter and bring a sacrifice. Marx offers a close analysis of those Temple structures that were named for or that invoke women, such as the Women’s Court, which, scholars have historically contended, marked the place beyond which women could not enter. But as Marx argues, citing the existence of a Women’s Gate leading from the Women’s Court into the Inner Court, “It is unlikely that a gate would bear this name if women were not supposed to go through it.” Her analysis is informed by theoretical scholarship on the relationship between space and gendering, which she invokes to support her claim that the Temple, like a synagogue or schoolyard or any space, is not just a representation of power relations; it also organizes and perpetuates them.

In one of her most fascinating and illuminating feminist commentaries, Marx surveys the sexual imagery invoked by the rabbis to describe the Temple’s rituals and structures. She shows how the priest’s activity in the Temple is described in phallic terms: He penetrates the inner sanctum, fertilizes it by means of incense that would “rise up straight like a stick” (Yoma 53a, Marx’s translation) and then fill the house with smoke. And she highlights the erotic nature of the Temple’s chambers and vessels, from the cherubs intertwined with one another to the staves of the curtain that could be seen through the curtain, where they “pressed forth and protruded as the two breasts of a woman” (Yoma 54a, Marx’s translation). “Could it be,” Marx concludes speculatively, “that at least in some rabbis’ imagination, coming into contact with the Temple allowed for union with the Divine, in ways that may resemble the union with their wives?” Why the interrogative? One can only wish Marx were bold enough to make this claim less hesitantly, especially considering that it was nearly two decades ago that Bonna Devora Haberman published her groundbreaking article entitled “The Yom Kippur Avoda Within the Female Enclosure” in which she boldly drew back the veil that had long concealed the rabbis’ striking sexual imagery, exposing the Temple’s most sacred vessels to the brilliant light of her feminist re-reading.

The final section of the book is devoted to tractate Qinnim, which discusses the laws governing bird offerings. Marx contends that Qinnim is the “most female-centered tractate in the Mishna,” since these offerings were most commonly brought by women who had completed their days of purification after giving birth. Although bird sacrifices were also brought by Nazirites and men who had abnormal discharges and other individuals in liminal situations, most of the examples in the tractate apply to women and involve feminine language. The Talmudic rabbis focus their discussion on possible mistakes that may occur when unruly birds fly from one nest to another, mixing up the various nest offerings. Marx shows how the pair of birds required for a nest offering — either two pigeons or two turtledoves, as specified by the Bible — served as a synecdoche for the woman herself, since both birds and women were perceived as uncontrollable and wild in their nature. We might say, summarizing Marx’s work on Tamid, Middot, and Qinnim, that women were allowed to enter into the Temple and survey its chambers, but the priests were always worried that the female pilgrims, like their pigeons, would squawk and scatter their feathers and destroy the orderly sanctity of the all-male Temple cult.

On behalf of those of us who study Talmud while brooding over our young, and on behalf of centuries of scholars who were denied the insights afforded by feminist criticism, I can only muse: so fair and fowl and feminist a commentary I have not seen.

Ilana Kurshan is Lilith’s books editor.