Trade-Off: Sex or Scholarship?

In the Middle Ages, one of the domains in which Christian and Jewish social values differed was that of sex. The value of marriage, and the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, never diminished in the Jewish community in spite of the strongly negative opinions about sexuality emanating from the Christian church. In fact, the Middle Ages was the time of the earliest Jewish sex manual, detailing how men could give women pleasure, thus ensuring conception. By contrast, the Church often suggested that couples who make love with too much pleasure were actually guilty of the sin of adultery.

In comparison to Christian women, then, the Jewish woman’s value as a sexual being was high. But in exchange for that aspect of her high status, she lost the right to remain unmarried, and along with it, the opportunity to gain renown or status through scholarship or outstanding religious commitment. From Christianity’s inception, some women, through their membership in religious communities, or occasionally, merely by taking a vow of chastity, enjoyed such opportunities, and their visions, ideas and/or the results of their studies and leadership were accepted and respected by followers of both sexes.

Dr. Emily Taitz, a scholar of medieval Jewish history, is an adjunct professor at Adelphi University where she teaches European history and women’ s studies. The following is excerpted from a paper she recently delivered at Ma’ yan, The Jewish Women’ s Project in New York City.