Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice

Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice
by Judith Hauptman
Westview Press $26, $17 paperback

What does it mean to read the Talmud from a woman’s perspective?

Rereading the Rabbis examines ten areas of rabbinic law concerning women—including the marriage ceremony and the biblical prohibitions on sexual intercourse during menstruation—demonstrating their development over time. For those of us who are too often guilty of teaching from choppy photocopied course packets, Hauptman’s approach is a crucial corrective.

Describing her approach as “contextual feminism,” Hauptman distances herself both from facile apologetics and from a feminism purely critical of the rabbinic sages from the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud (approximately 0 to 500 CE). Hauptman is a renowned scholar and the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Both her feminism and her commitment to Jewish observance point her toward finding in the rabbis a usable past for contemporary committed Jews.

Hauptman demonstrates that, while the rabbis were hardly feminists, rabbinic law operated as a “benevolent patriarchy” in which women’s legal position improved over the centuries. She argues that the direction of the rabbis’ movement allows contemporary feminists to see ourselves as among their legitimate successors—and their work as a resource for our own.

Readers hoping for a thoroughly feminist critique of rabbinic law and culture may be disappointed. Hauptman’s feminism brings her to “ferret out from these texts the thinking about women, their social status, their relationship to men, and the impact of rabbinic law on them.” Hers is not a feminist reading per se, but instead is a historically sensitive, rigorous analysis of women’s legal status, through which Hauptman finds rabbinic models of change helpful for contemporary feminists.

Hauptman takes a hands-off approach to aggadic (narrative) passages in the Talmud, which contain stories about women. She argues that even when these tales are misogynist—and she implicitly distinguishes misogyny from patriarchy—there is no evidence that this attitude influences the different legal status of men and women. This is a less than satisfying argument in an otherwise dazzling book.

Hauptman’s introduction alone is a treat; the depth and unfailingly clear style of her analysis is unprecedented. The greatest achievement of Rereading the Rabbis is not its cautiously positive claims, but its thorough, brilliant scholarship. It belongs in the library of every serious Jew.

Rabbi Susan Fendrick is associate director of Brown-RISD Hillel, vice-chair of the National Havurah Committee, and a writer, teacher and bibliodramatist.