Medieval Jewish Women Make Great Role Models

It is hard to imagine a book about medieval Jewish women being a bestseller, but in Israel this book was. In Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe by Avraham Grossman (Brandeis University Press, $29.95), there is no retelling of potboiling stories, or unearthing of scandal. Grossman is a cautious historian, refusing to make grand statements about his sources, or to speculate about events he cannot know. So what makes this book so compelling? Why did I find this dry history so difficult to put down? The answer, I think, is this: Grossman loves these ancient Jewish women, and indeed, there is much to love.

Often married off in infancy, and certainly between the ages of 12 and 16, the girls/women Grossman describes were frequently left by their husbands for years at a time while the men engaged in international trade. As a result, the women supported their households and raised their children alone, and in this they excelled. The primary activity of Jews in Europe was money lending, and the women, too, ran loan portfolios, sometimes with their husbands and families, sometimes on their own. Many amassed considerable personal wealth, and prestige as well, because women’s businesses created opportunities for alliances with the gentile ruling classes.

Economics, says Grossman, is the key to understanding the status of Jewish women in the years 1000-1300. The significant advances made by women in this period can be linked to their financial power, as well as the status of women in gentile Europe. The changes in family law during this era were most far-reaching. Beginning in the seventh century, Jewish women were able to obtain a divorce against their husbands’ will and take their own money as well as their marriage contract settlement with them when they divorced. This rule lasted 500 years, during which period the breakup of marriages became so rampant that rabbis began issuing a series of increasingly draconian monetary penalties on women when they exercised the power to force divorce on their husbands. Despite these financial discouragements, women’s apparent desire to be separated from their husbands continued unabated. This is remarkable both because it showed women were confident in their ability to support themselves, and because it was in such contrast to the situation in the Christian world, where divorce was nonexistent.

The Jewish ban against polygyny was enacted in Western Europe in this era, perhaps in response to married men traveling to other lands for business, and taking second wives while away. The first wives were often abandoned, and the rabbis abhorred such behavior. A twin ruling forbade a man to divorce a wife against her will. The net result was that for a couple of centuries, a woman could divorce her husband against the man’s will, but not vice versa!

Also at this time, the penalties against men for abusing their wives greatly increased, and included imposing corporal punishment, “cutting off his hand,” and excommunicating the abusive husband.

In the spiritual realm. Western European women battled for, and won, the right to say blessings over rituals which they were permitted, but not obligated, to perform—for example, the blessing over lulav and etrog on Sukkot. In Germany, woman acted as sandakiot— holding their sons or grandsons during the circumcision. Rabbinic leaders fought to end this practice, as an immodest intrusion of a woman into the synagogue. But for a long time, the women prevailed, perhaps because the infants’ fathers were so often away.

On the negative side, rules regarding modesty and restricting the activities of the menstruant were strengthened in this era. Partly due to the influence of the Jewish mystics and pietists, the rulings may also have been related to the atmosphere disdaining sexuality amongst the Christians. Whatever its causes, the new rules limited women’s ability to participate in Jewish ritual life, but not in business, so it is not surprising that it was in the latter area that they concentrated their energies.

Grossman has a particular soft spot for one woman, Dulca, murdered by Christian rioters, and elegized by her husband in a moving poem. She “was among those who assisted in providing supplies for the synagogue, and.. .visited [there] frequently, taking care to arrive early for prayer and to leave the synagogue late, so as not to make her prayer appear as if it were a burden.. .[she took] care to pray daily, morning and evening. She taught other women how to pray and embellish the prayer with music.” Women like Dulca played critical roles in the persecution of the Jews in the medieval era, becoming martyr figures, encouraging their husbands and children not to give in to the rioters’ demands to convert. This also increased their prestige in the eyes of their husbands and leaders.

There is not a single work written by women from this era which Grossman has uncovered, not in law, mysticism, or kabala. He is shocked by this, particularly since creative writing by both Christian and Muslim women has survived. He theorizes that women’s work was centered around the home, and that, in a hostile Diaspora, bearing children and keeping them alive to adulthood was immensely difficult, and had recognized spiritual value. There were no equivalents to nunneries where Jewish women could immerse themselves in learning and creating. They were involved in household and business management immediately upon leaving childhood.

I disagree with Grossman that nothing in writing survives from our female Jewish medieval ancestors. What of those money lending ledgers? Why are they not evidence of the creativity of women, of their drive to survive, and succeed? Why are they not as impressive as works of philosophy and mysticism?

Ashkenazi Jews exist today because of the resourcefulness of the women Grossman describes, their financial genius, their flexibility in the face of constantly changing circumstances, their refusal to submit to their Christian oppressors. The voices of medieval Jewish women sing to us today in our blood—in our very existence.

C. Devora Hammer has written for The Washingtonian, The Forward,Los Angeles Jewish Journal, and, of course, LILITH.