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Monday, March 4, 2013

Looking For Answers About Women in the Talmud

After reading Rav Hisda's Daughter by Maggie Anton which I reviewed on this blog last month, I decided that I needed to know more about women in the Talmud.  So I obtained Women of the Talmud by Judith Z. Abrams, hoping to learn a great deal more about particular women mentioned in the Talmud.  It didn't have as much of that sort of content as I anticipated.

 In this review I will discuss what I consider to be the highlights of Abrams' book and my view of its shortcomings.

I think the biggest revelation of this book for me wasn't about women.  It was that Aramaic wasn't the language that everyone spoke during the Talmudic period as I had been taught.  Only the literate upper class spoke Aramaic which is why the Talmud was written in it.  Everyone else spoke Hebrew.  This came up as the reason why Rabbi Yehuda's maid was the authority about the meaning of certain Hebrew words.  This means that Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, which portrayed Jesus and his disciples (all common folk)speaking Aramaic was inaccurate.  But more importantly, it means that the division between a rabbi and an ordinary person labeled "Am Ha'aretz" was linguistic as well as religious.  Abrams tells us about Rabbi Chiyya Bar Abba visiting a village that was violating the laws established by rabbis right and left.  She imagines that they wouldn't have listened to him.  This would have been especially true if he tried to point out what he viewed as their errors in Aramaic which they wouldn't have understood.  It seems to me that Rabbinic Judaism could not come to be practiced more widely until the rabbis and ordinary Jews shared a common language.

I was also interested to learn about a form of  punishment for Jewish heterodoxy called Niddui.  It takes effect for up to thirty days. Abrams says that it translates to ostracism.  It looks to me like it's related to the Hebrew word for menstruation, Niddah.  Women are pretty much ostracized during Niddah according to Jewish law.

Sometimes Abrams doesn't notice possibilities.  For example, in the case of the unnamed woman in the Talmud  who asked about Enoch, Abrams thinks that she was either a Christian or someone who wanted to explain the Jewish perspective on Enoch to Christians.  As someone who had some ancestors who were Kabalists,  I'm aware that in  Jewish Kabalistic tradition Enoch became the archangel Metatron.  He is very important to the Kabalistic approach.  It was forbidden for women to study Kabala, but what if the woman mentioned in the Talmud who asked about Enoch defied that prohibition?   This would be a very interesting possibility.  I am wondering if Rav Hisda's daughter will be taking up the study of Kabala in future books of Maggie Anton's series about her.

Another example of Abrams not noticing a possibility involves a very strange passage in the Talmud about Rabbi Eliezer disagreeing with the rest of the Talmudic sages.  He is excommunicated even though a voice from heaven endorses Rabbi Eliezer's position.  Abrams said that the lesson is that you shouldn't go against the majority.  Should Jews in general not go against the majority?  Then the Jewish religion would not exist because Abraham, the Biblical founder of the religion, had to go against the majority among his people to pursue his spiritual path.  I was taught by my parents and rabbinic instructors that the majority isn't always right, and that I should be prepared to go my own way which is indeed what I have done.  So why was Rabbi Eliezer really excommunicated?   There's something very wrong with a voice from heaven being disregarded --unless the other rabbis didn't believe it was genuine.  Maggie Anton portrays Talmudic figures practicing magic in Rav Hisda's Daughter.  Rabbi Eliezer might have been excommunicated for perpetrating some kind of fraud through a spell or ventriloquism.  This would have been a hidden reason concealed behind the ridiculous argument that a voice from heaven should be ignored because the Torah is no longer in heaven.  I would have thought that the Jewish position would be that the God who wrote the Torah is in heaven and is the ultimate authority.

Because I am interested in deaf issues I noticed Abrams discussion of the Talmud's view of the deaf.  The Talmudic rabbis viewed those who were born deaf as mentally incompetent.  This is scarcely a unique attitude.  Abrams said that there was no way to communicate with those who were born deaf at that time.  According to Wikipedia on Sign Language there was mention of ancient Greek deaf sign language in the Platonic dialogue Cratylus.  This means that deaf sign language did exist in the Talmudic era.  So communication with the deaf was possible.

Women of the Talmud seemed rather limited to me.  It didn't delve deeply into the topics that it covered. So I found it unsatisfying.   I discovered that a single volume is available through interlibrary loan from  a series published in Germany called A Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud.  I requested it and look forward to seeing what it's like.


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