January 16, 2019

Unrequited Love: When Women Study the Talmud

“IN RABBINIC LORE, there is a tale of a woman suspected by her husband of committing adultery and ordered to appear in Jerusalem to undergo the biblical sotah (“bitter waters”) ordeal. The ordeal consists of drinking dirty waters that have been mixed with ashes and the dissolved letters of God’s name. It’s a kind of trial-by-fire: If the woman is innocent, she will ingest the unsavory brew unscathed. If she is guilty as charged, her stomach will explode and she will not survive. Adultery is strictly defined in the rabbinic world as the offense of a married woman sleeping with someone other than her husband; men are not subject to the same censure.

In this story from Midrash Tanhuma, the woman decides to send a look-alike sister in her place. The substitute sister survives the ordeal, then returns home where the accused sister awaits her. They celebrate their successful ruse with a kiss of jubilance and solidarity—but the tiniest drop of the ritual waters on the returning sister’s lips is enough to poison the evasive sister and cause her death. Ruth Calderon, a feminist commentator on the Talmud, writes of the story, “It warns that anyone who tries to circumvent the law will pay with her life. Feminine loyalty will not triumph over the masculine rule of law.”

When a woman such as Calderon—or one of the many other female Talmudic scholars—delights in the Talmud, she is finding ways to love a body of work that does not love her. She is entering an ancient worldview that rarely sees women as anything more than wayward, if highly sexualized, children. She is applying her critical faculties to an androcentric tradition that denies her the status of full-fledged adulthood and suspects her of malignancy.

How to explain why many feminist Jewish women are drawn to reading, teaching and writing about the Talmud? Studying these texts was until recently the guarded preserve of Orthodox Jewish males. Today, Talmud study is attracting a far larger and, in some cases, heterodox audience. The burgeoning global daf yomi (“page of day”) movement—considered the world’s biggest book club, with online participants learning a folio of Talmud per day—attests to a broad democratization of Talmud readership. Educated women from across the religious spectrum account for a significant part of this new readership. What is the interchange between progressive women and this woman-hostile text? What is the takeaway when women with contemporary sensibilities enter the alienating and myopic world of rabbinic misogyny?”

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