Teaching Daughters Torah

Talmud and romance in medieval France

In the series Rashi’s Daughters (Plume, $15), Maggie Anton sets herself the daunting challenge of bringing to life the words and world of Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, known by the acronym Rashi, probably the most famous and revered of medieval Jewish scholars. A vintner in 11th century France, Rashi is known to us through his groundbreaking and extensive commentaries on the Torah and Talmud, which contain a few tantalizing references to his personal life — the foods he ate, the clothes he wore. From these and other contemporary texts, Anton has found the threads which give historical texture to her novels.

It is one of the strengths of the series that Anton chooses to focus not on Rashi himself, but on his daughters, about whom a modern writer may feel freer to speculate without coming up against a tradition of reverence. She allows herself to imagine that the great scholar, with no sons to teach, might have taught his daughters Torah, though doing so was contrary to the conventions of his era. In Jochebed, the first book of the series, Rashi one evening, in order to distract himself and his daughter from the cries of his wife in labor in the bedroom above, begins to teach her Torah. He follows suit with his other two daughters, to their mother’s chagrin, and soon has a thriving yeshiva in his home, in which his daughters participate. Visiting scholars, won over by the wise and witty daughters, become their suitors and husbands. The arrival of new students gives Anton ample opportunity, in each book, to go through the Talmudic passages concerning whether or not women may study Torah. Though she at times crosses the line into polemic, she makes her point that they certainly may, and indeed should.

The great treat in these books is the richness of detail with which Anton portrays the intimate details of life: the wine harvest, midwifery, cookery, fashion, jewelry — all are woven into the rich tapestry of life in Rashi’s household. Especially interesting for us is the large role superstitions and folk rituals play in these lives. People fear the demon Lilith, commission amulets, administer potions for virility, and invoke protective angels, all a part of Jewish tradition that, once important, is largely unknown today. The Talmudic passages in the novels focus on women’s role in ritual, as Rashi’s daughters break taboos (wearing tefillin, performing ritual circumcision) and on their sex lives, as daughters Jochebed and Miriam grapple with problems in their marriages. Readers may be surprised to find some of the Talmud’s most explicit passages, relating to all manner of sexuality, discussed in Rashi’s household, as the women look in its pages for resolutions to marital issues just as they would for rulings on Shabbat observance.

In keeping with the tradition of the romance novel, an obstacle must separate each couple; unfortunately, some of these plots seem rather contrived. And the characters are not as compelling, or perhaps as realistic, as the setting. By the second book, Miriam, the growth of Rashi’s family means that we pay less attention to each character, and major life events are sometimes given short shrift. Despite these flaws, Anton’s research is impressive, and by blending romance with Talmud, the books may inspire women who would not otherwise have done so to undertake Talmud study themselves.

Rahel Lerner is a book editor living in New York.