The Rain in Babylon
An unexpected interrogation of the Talmud
Massekhet Ta’anit (Mohr Siebeck, €89.00), is the inaugural volume in a new series of scholarly feminist analyses of each of the tractates of the Babylonian Talmud. Ta’anit, the tractate that is the subject of this volume by Tal Ilan, deals with ritual fasting, usually in a case when rain fails to fall.
Ta’anit, which literally means “fast,” seems at first to be a surprising choice for feminist analysis; why not begin with any of the various tractates that deal directly with women’s issues, such as Ketubot (marriage contracts) or Niddah (menstrual impurity)? Yet as Ilan compellingly demonstrates, the central metaphor that runs through this tractate is highly gendered: the rabbis use the term “copulation” [r’via] to describe rainfall. Rain is overtly compared to a male (Ilan aptly translates the Talmudic phrase as “virile rain”) and the land, of course, is always female. Moreover, the rabbis of the Talmud explicitly compare the land under rainfall to a woman in the act of sexual intercourse, which reflects another common Talmud metaphor in which a woman is the fertile field in which a man deposits his seed.
Ilan’s examination of this metaphor as it plays itself out throughout the tractate is a central subject of this volume, but not its only subject. She also considers all those passages in Ta’anit that deal with women and gender. Her analysis extends to such issues as: Did men and women dance together in Talmudic times? Did the women of the Talmud wear makeup? And, following the twisted thread of Talmudic discursiveness, she touches also upon issues as far afield as: Did anyone have sex in Noah’s ark? How to account for the trope of women eating their children that appears in Lamentations as well as in rabbinic literature?
These questions, which arise out of passages in this tractate, are explored through comparative analysis with the Jerusalem Talmud and classical rabbinic midrashic collections. All texts are presented in both Hebrew and English, with parallel texts placed conveniently sideby- side and with all feminist or genderrelated passages underlined.
“Feminist investigation is most interested in the history of textual transmission,” she explains in her methodological introduction. “It is the working hypothesis of this discipline that editing and copying worked in a specific direction — to belittle, denigrate and silence women.” Unfortunately, the print of the text is in a frustratingly small font size. One can only lament that even in our age, which has witnessed a great revolution in feminist Jewish scholarship, women are still making themselves small.
This series of feminist commentaries on the tractates of the Babylonian Talmud is the brainchild of Ilan, an Israeli-born professor who is currently teaching in the department of Jewish Studies at the Freie Universtät in Berlin. The other tractates have been assigned to feminist Jewish scholars the world over, including Judith Hauptman of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Tirzah Meacham of the University of Toronto, and Shulamit Valler of the University of Haifa. The publication of this series, which is sponsored by the Freie Universtät, is the first time since WWII that significant scholarship in the field of Talmud is being spearheaded and funded by a German academic institution. Moreover, although feminist Bible commentaries have been around for decades, this series looks to be the first comprehensive and systematic feminist analysis of the entire Babylonian
Talmud. To invoke the central metaphor of this volume, one can only hope, then, that Tal Ilan’s efforts will continue to yield fruit.