English, Reviews

E. Baumgarten, Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz – Reviewed by D. Shyovitz

Elisheva Baumgarten, Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014) – Reviewed by David Shyovitz.

[To download the review as a pdf click here.]

Writing history on the basis of medieval halakhic sources is a notoriously tricky enterprise.  Not only are the relevant source materials inherently difficult—suffused with technical terminology, complex, often terse exposition, and assumed prior knowledge—it is extremely challenging to escape from the orbit of the sources themselves, and to draw firm conclusions as to how they reflect or intersect with the lived reality of historical actors.  Exegetical tracts (such as Talmudic commentaries and super-commentaries), for example, tend to confine their analysis to the particular texts under consideration—it is not easy to utilize the narrow explication of a particular phrase or argument in the Talmud as a means of recovering broader data about the particular historical moment in which it was generated.  Halakhic codes, as prescriptive texts, by definition tell us more about rabbinic ideals than they do about communal and individual practices.  And responsa, ostensibly the genre most transparently reflective of historical reality, have oftentimes undergone redactional and editorial processes so extensive that it is impossible to recover the historical “facts” that underlie the surviving documents.

For scholars of medieval Ashkenaz, efforts to present a descriptive, rather than prescriptive account of lived religious reality have been particularly fraught.  Long entrenched assumptions concerning the “talmudocentrism” or “halakhocentrism” of medieval Ashkenazic rabbinic culture has privileged elite legal sources, and obscured the non-elites who had no facility with—and perhaps no interest in—the dictates of halakhic texts.  As a result, medieval Ashkenazic contributions to “the history of halakhah” have often been limited to precisely that—the historical analysis of (abstract, elite) halakhah itself, rather than an attempt to write a broader history that utilizes halakhic texts without accepting their own claims to normativity and authoritativeness.

In her new book Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance, Elisheva Baumgarten seeks to escape from this interpretive morass, and models a new approach toward using halakhic texts for historical ends.  She mines halakhic sources composed in medieval Ashkenaz (between roughly 1096 and 1348) for the evidence they reveal concerning “pious practices”—the concrete actions and observances that were important and accessible to both rabbinic elites and the laity, men and women, members of the upper and lower classes.  By focusing on practice rather than theory, Baumgarten seeks to transcend the prescriptive nature of halakhic sources, and to bridge the gap between halakhic and other (narrative, moralistic, polemical) sources.  Rather than treat halakhah as an insular and independent construct, she seeks to reconstruct what halakhic texts reveal about the religious values and commitments of Jews who left no independent records of their lives and experiences.  What she recovers, in short, is a Jewish “lay piety,” akin to (and as we shall see, bound up in) the lay piety and popular devotion that has been the subject of much recent attention among scholars of medieval Christianity.

Practicing Piety is in many ways a path-breaking book: conceptually sophisticated, methodologically complex, the product of prodigious research and nuanced, creative readings of often familiar (and sometimes over-familiar) texts.  Its argument is for the most part extremely persuasive.  To be sure, all important books give rise to as many questions as they answer, and Baumgarten’s book is no exception—particularly because it intersects with varied overlapping fields: the history of halakhah, gender studies, Jewish-Christian relations, and others.  In what follows, I shall lay out some (by no means all) of Baumgarten’s major claims, raise some questions concerning her findings, and point to some avenues of future research that her stimulating book opens up.

Practicing Piety’s introductory chapter guides the reader through the multiple interpretive axes on which the study turns.  In order to reconstruct the piety of non-elites—the laity—and not merely the rabbinic scholars who produced the sources that have survived, Baumgarten reads those sources with an eye toward their gendered dynamics, and with comparative attention to the contemporary, predominantly Christian setting in which they were composed.  Her attention to gender serves not merely to highlight the heretofore obscured experiences of women (an approach modeled virtuosically in her earlier Mothers and Children).  Rather, by comparing the practices of men and women, Baumgarten seeks both to uncover the experiences of non-elites (since women can be said to reflect the sectors of society who were outside the rabbinic elite) as well as to locate moments of particular social conflict, since “conflicts regarding identity and institutional control are often imposed on and reflected by women” (2).  At the same time that she is attentive to the differences and overlaps between men and women, Baumgarten is constantly aware of the Christian setting within which Jews lived and practiced.  She harnesses the abundant recent scholarship on Christian “lay piety” as a means of both understanding currents within Jewish communities, as well as identifying the sources and resonances of changing Jewish practices within their socio-cultural context.  Finally, Baumgarten constantly toggles between the public and private spheres; her analysis reveals that ostensibly private acts of devotion and spirituality tended to manifest themselves publicly, and to play a role in constituting the shared ideals and identity of the community as a whole.

The main body of the book applies these overlapping lenses to six case studies.  Chapters One, Two, and Three focus on presence in the synagogue, fasting, and charity—all quotidian elements of Jewish life, and yet spheres of religious experience that underwent significant shifts over the course of the Middle Ages.  In Chapter One, Baumgarten focuses on the custom, first attested in the sifrut de-bei Rashi, of women absenting themselves from the synagogue while menstruating.  The sources that detail this practice have been subject to extensive historical analysis, mainly by scholars interested in the history of halakhah and minhag—in tracing the textual attestations of this practice, many scholars have assumed that the custom reflects new awareness of existing Palestinian texts like the Beraita de-Nidah.  Baumgarten finds such textual genealogies unconvincing, and argues that the original impetus for abstention from synagogue services came from pious women themselves.  But what began as an optional pious practice was soon normalized by rabbinic decisors, rendering it “a justification for the marginalization of women in the synagogue” (48).  Here, her comparative attention to both male and female piety bears fruit—as she shows, the newfound preoccupation with female menstrual impurity was not accompanied by concern with male impurity due to seminal emissions (keri); on the contrary, men generally attended synagogue regardless of their purity status.  Baumgarten seeks to anchor the custom in high medieval anxieties—among Jews and Christians alike—over impurity and access to sacred spaces.  Christian thinkers had debated the issue of menstruating women attending mass and taking communion since the early Middle Ages, and while the high Middle Ages saw more concern over (male) clerical purity than over menstrual purity, “the resonance between the discourses conducted by these two sets of religious leaders is significant” (41).   Indeed, Christians were deemphasizing menstrual purity at precisely the same moment that Jewish leaders were elevating nidah observance as a covenantal sign, “the defining symbol of the Jewish people and Jewish women’s covenant with God” (47).  Jews and Christians were likely aware of one another’s purity practices, an awareness that manifested itself in this “competitive piety.”

This doubly-comparative methodology, with attention to both gendered and interreligious relations, also informs the discussion of fasting in Chapter Two.  Just as the ostensibly private observance of nidah regulations had public, communal implications, so too fasting became an increasingly ubiquitous, and visible, element of the pious landscape in medieval Ashkenaz, where older fasts that had been minimized by the Geonim were revived, and where fasting became increasingly associated with penitence.  The rise of fasting paralleled the simultaneous growth of fasting in Christian lay piety, and had gendered implications as well—Jews and Christians alike subordinated pious practice to a “common gendered ideology,” which assumed that women’s role as caregivers, and even their biological workings, limited the options for pious expression available to them.  The fact that fasting occupied a prominent place in Christian penitence helps us to understand the development of Jewish penitential fasting—although both faiths anchored their practices in ancient texts and traditions, they harnessed those sources in the service of “complex structures of repentance whose theoretical and ritual overlap is too extensive to be coincidental” (101).

Chapter Three continues in the same vein, but utilizes a unique surviving source, the Nürnberg Memorbuch, in an attempt to delve more deeply into the particular social and economic settings in which pious practices were expressed.  The Memorbuch preserves the liturgy Ashkenazic Jews recited for donors pro anima—those who contributed to communal institutions on behalf of their souls—and lists the names of donors and amounts of their donations over the course of several centuries.  Baumgarten’s statistical analysis of this surviving data is a revelation—she tracks the amounts donated by men and women, the various currencies utilized by members of different socio-economic classes, the ends for which contributions were utilized, and the ways in which external events, from the inauguration of a new synagogue to the Rindfleisch and Black Death attacks on the community, impacted upon charitable norms and practices.  The upshot of this analysis is a growing, and increasingly universal desire “to commemorate each and every soul” (128)—regardless of gender and class.  The popularity of pro anima almsgiving drew on the late antique tradition of redemptive almsgiving (that Alyssa Gray and others have reconstructed), but was also spurred by Christian charitable norms.  Indeed, the very literary structure and communal function of the Memorbuch as a physical artifact represented a Jewish response to the martyrologies and necrologies in use among Christians: “another case in which Jewish culture appropriated elements from the Christian majority while tailoring them to harmonize with the Jewish frameworks of practice and belief” (115).

The juxtaposition of ostensibly familiar Jewish sources alongside elements of Christian lay piety is most productively utilized in Chapter Four, which deals with the question of women’s performance of positive time bound commandments (mitsvot aseh sheha-zman grama).  Ashkenazic decisors by and large allowed women to perform, and recite benedictions upon, commandments that were obligatory on men alone, such as hearing the shofar and shaking the arba minim.  When it came to tsitsit and tefillin, however, early allowances gave way to increasing restrictions over the course of the Middle Ages, as women were discouraged and then prohibited from wearing and making tsitsit and tefillin.  This is a familiar story to scholars of medieval Ashkenaz, and the sources that describe the process have been well trod.  But the originality of Baumgarten’s approach is her juxtaposition of this data alongside the sources indicating that men in the high Middle Ages by and large did not perform the commandments of tsitsit and tefillin.  Only as the Middle Ages progressed did a self-conscious campaign of top-down encouragement lead more and more men to adopt these practices.  The comparison of men’s and women’s experiences, then, reveals that the limitations on women’s pious expression were coterminous with the encouragement of men to perform previously neglected commandments.  The turning point in this process was the thirteenth century, a period in which we find critiques of women’s “arrogance” in a wide array of halakhic and moralistic sources.  The desire to limit women’s options for independent religious expression led to varied articulations of the core differences between men and women: men could keep their bodies clean (or “pure”) long enough to wear tefillin while women were incapable of bodily purity; women were akin to “deficient men,” since, like blind men, they were exempt from certain commandments; or, as Maharil categorically put it based on a Talmudic precedent, women are “a people unto themselves” (164).  The exaggeration of gender differences, and concomitant attempt to limit women’s options, mirrors precisely developments underway in thirteenth century Christendom, which saw the repression of the Beguines, the rise in accusations of female heresy, and so on.  “The sanctions and suspicions of the Christian hierarchy differed little from the rabbi’s concerns…the reactions led by these male authorities to women’s more active agency in religious life are remarkably similar” (170).  The inclusion of both men’s and women’s experiences, and the contextualization of Jewish concerns within their Christian surroundings, thus leads to a fresh take on a long-debated episode in the history of halakhah.

Chapter Five, which explores the ways in which piety would have been publicly visible in medieval urban settings, contains surveys of the hairstyles, garments, and fashions of Jew and Christians.  This chapter is, to my mind, the least compelling in the book.  Some of the sources contained here will be familiar to scholars of medieval Ashkenaz, but Baumgarten’s approach is less successful in recontextualizing the material than elsewhere in the book.  A number of her specific claims are original and provocative—e.g., the notion that Jewish tailoring practices would have subtly distinguished Jews’ garments from ostensibly identical Christian ones, an “internal code of sorts” (189) that made Jewish fashions simultaneously identical to and distinct from those of their neighbors.  But this argument is based on scanty (and chronologically late) evidence.  Moreover, much of her discussion in this chapter deals with prescriptive sources (e.g. halakhic discussions of the laws of shaatnez) which seem to reflect more the desires of rabbinic elites than the implemented practices of pious laypeople.

Chapter Six, however, fascinatingly extends Baumgarten’s approach from halakhic sources to narrative ones.  In a compelling analysis, she shows that “tales of pious pretenders”—rabbinic narratives in which ostensibly pious actions are discovered to be fraudulent and hypocritical—were retold and reinterpreted by medieval Ashkenazic authors in ways that accentuated female hypocrisy while eliminating that of men.  That is, the male “pious pretenders” in rabbinic literature were rehabilitated by storytellers at precisely the moment when ostensibly sincere female characters were deemed devious and duplicitous.  Again, this development tracks on to currents in contemporary elite Christian conceptions of lay piety—male religiosity was lionized as female piety was increasingly subject to surveillance and control, assumed to be fraudulent and self-interested rather than sincere and well-intentioned.

Chapter Seven concludes the book by drawing together the multiple threads of the argument—threads that Baumgarten elsewhere describes as making up “a bricolage” (87), or “a tapestry” (42).  Indeed, a tapestry is an apt analogy for the overall argument of the book.  In its large contours, the notion that Jewish piety ought to be approached via pious practices and with attention to the lay men and women who comprised the majorities within Jewish communities is compelling, and the overall picture that emerges is highly convincing.  But a close inspection of the reverse side of the tapestry, where the actual work of drawing linkages takes place, reveals a more complex and complicated picture—particularly when it comes to anchoring Jewish lay piety in its broader surrounding context.  To be sure, the scanty surviving documents from medieval Ashkenaz inevitably preclude clear and unidirectional conclusions regarding causality, and if the book leaves certain details regarding transmission and interreligious interaction unclear, it is nonetheless to the author’s credit that there are no simplistic overgeneralizations in the book, no attempts to quash the messy realities of daily life and religious beliefs into overly rigid categories or frameworks.

To begin with, the most pressing challenge to reconstructing the pious practices of the laity is one of sources.  Medieval Christian culture left behind myriad documents—written by, for, and about the laity—that historians have utilized in order to get beyond the normative and prescriptive image that emerges from top-down pronouncements.  The available Jewish source materials are far slimmer.  Thus, although Baumgarten “[takes] the vantage point of those who performed rituals rather than those who penned their descriptions and prescriptions” (216), it is those very descriptive and prescriptive texts that comprise the primary source base for her study.  Baumgarten is well aware of this methodological challenge, but never provides an explicit articulation of the method she utilizes to tease out real practices and values from the prescriptive sources in which they are reflected.  Occasionally, this leads to slippage between elite texts and the lay reality that they are assumed to describe—as when it is assumed that “increased adherence to these pious practices (tsitsit, tefillin, and shaatnez) coincided with greater attention to them in the writings of the rabbis who promoted heightened religious observance” (193).  When the sources that attest to the “increased adherence” are themselves “the writings of the rabbis,” how can we be certain that this coincidence of text and practice was not, on the contrary, a rabbinic conceit, an exclusively elite, literary development disconnected from the interests and actions of everyday Jews?

A similar complexity is manifested in Practicing Piety’s approach to Jewish-Christian relations.  Baumgarten’s illustrations of similarities between developments in Jewish and Christian piety are on the whole quite convincing—the “theoretical and ritual overlap” in the ideals, anxieties, and practices she charts are, as she puts it, “too extensive to be coincidental” (101).  But how to account for that overlap is not always clear, or at least consistent, throughout the book.  Her overall claim, as expressed in the context of Chapter Five, seems to be that “Jews wore distinctive clothing and they dressed like their neighbors” (275 n. 20): that is, that their similarities were, paradoxically, simultaneously constitutive of distinctiveness.  At times, such similarities between Jewish and Christian practices are taken to indicate a kind of bi-directional awareness and polemically inflected “competitive piety” (8 and passim)—as in the suggestion in Chapter One that Christian de-emphasis of menstrual impurity was dialectically related to Jewish privileging of nidah as the covenantal sign of Jewish fidelity.  Baumgarten recurrently gestures to Ivan Marcus’s theory of “inward acculturation,” and argues that Jews and Christians “harnessed shared rituals to express religious difference” (99).  Such commonalities in ideals and practices can thus be “simultaneously read as [appropriations] of Christian practice and as [polemics] against it” (112).  But at other points, Baumgarten limits herself to the more general observation that “the medieval Christian environment provides essential data for understanding the development of Jewish customs and ideas” (22)—that is to say, that the Christian atmosphere helps us understand Jewish developments, but was not necessarily the cause of them.  In this view, “awareness of Christian conduct is not synonymous with appropriation of its ideology or practices” (87, emphasis added), and Jewish and Christian pious practices might not have responded to one another so much as sprung from the same contextual environment, or “common ‘ritual instinct’” (44).  It would have been helpful to distinguish these two approaches from one another more carefully, especially since the polemical valences of the “appropriation” approach occasionally come across as strained.  To take just one example, in Chapter Three the similarities between the Jewish Memorbuch and Christian martyrologies and necrologies are understood to reflect not just “shared ritual instinct,” but conscious polemical appropriation.  The liturgical use of such necrologies during the Mass is thus juxtaposed with “the decision to remember the dead and their donations between the Torah and the Musaf services–with Musaf connoting sacrifice in the ancient Temple,” and read as polemically intended, as “an expression of the inward acculturation that typified medieval Jewish life” (112).  One could question whether “polemics” (micro-polemics?) of this sort were really intended or perceived as such, or whether the choice of placement of memorial rites simply obeyed the internal logic of the Jewish liturgy, in which the junction of Torah reading and Musaf was a moment when interruptions to the standard service were licit.

The ambiguity in terms of precisely how Jewish and Christian currents intersected with one another is mirrored in a certain vagueness concerning the precise factors that led to change over time.  Time and again, Baumgarten convincingly demonstrates that developments in Jewish piety—as practiced by lay Jews and as regulated by elite rabbis—mirrored developments in Christian Europe.  But a huge body of scholarship has sought to account for why Christian piety (and especially female piety) shifted and became increasingly regulated over the course of the High Middle Ages.  Much of that scholarship is referenced in Practicing Piety, but it is not wholly clear how those broader causal developments impacted upon the shifts in Jewish practice.  Put differently, did Jewish piety undergo changes over the course of the Middle Ages because Christian piety did, or were certain external factors impinging upon both religious communities, living as they did in the same cultural ambit?  And if the latter was the case, what were those external factors?  Baumgarten convincingly shows that change was afoot in the high Middle Ages, but the reader is not always certain as to why.

Baumgarten’s stimulating book thus spurs its readers to consider the extent to which Jewish piety adapted, competed with, or was indistinguishable from Christian piety—and further research by scholars of medieval Ashkenaz will no doubt engage with and extend the arguments that are so productively introduced here.  Indeed, Practicing Piety opens up numerous such avenues of future research.  To highlight just one, the very category of “lay piety,” as applied to the Jews of medieval Europe, demands that scholars revisit entrenched assumptions concerning rabbinic leadership and social structures within Jewish communities.  In medieval Christian culture, “the laity” could be contrasted with “the religious”—the priests, monks, and clerics who occupied (at least in theory) a defined and circumscribed position within society.  When, in the high Middle Ages, Beguines, tertiary Franciscans, “heretics,” and others challenged the boundaries between the religious and the laity, they were responding to real, deeply embedded socio-religious structures.  But is it safe to assume that the lines between Christian clerics and the laity tracked onto those separating the rabbis from other members of the community?  How could we determine whether the medieval Ashkenazic rabbinic elite comprised a socially and politically distinct “religious class,” with which a “laity” can be contrasted?  Practicing Piety models a way to combine moralistic and narrative sources with halakhic ones, and to use them to sharpen and deepen our notions of how social structures within Jewish communities impacted upon religious observance.

By productively, and provocatively, challenging the entrenched “top-down” model of medieval Jewish piety, Practicing Piety sheds new light upon the social, gendered, and interreligious dynamics of Ashkenazic religious practices.  Scholars of medieval halakhah, spirituality, and Jewish-Christian relations will find it to be an indispensable resource in their continued exploration of the complex, messy, and immensely fruitful religious culture of medieval Ashkenaz.

David Shyovitz is Assistant Professor of Medieval Jewish History at Northwestern University, and is presently a Yad Hanadiv Visiting Fellow in Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

English, Guest Posts, Reviews

Fair and Fowl: A Review of ‘Tractates Tamid, Middot and Qinnim’ by Dalia Marx – Guest Post by Ilana Kurshan

marx reviewDalia Marx, Tractates Tamid, Middot and Qinnim. A Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013,  XII + 258 pages. €89.

A few weeks ago I was learning daf yomi while nursing my daughter when I came upon the following Talmudic passage, which begins with a quote from the Song of Songs: “‘Our little sister has no breasts.’ Rabbi Yohanan said: This refers to Eilam, who merited to learn but not to teach” (Pesachim 87a).” My infant daughter was lying bare-skinned on my breast, and I looked down at her as I puzzled over this passage. Why is having no breasts analogous to learning but not teaching? Continue reading

English, Guest Posts, Reviews

Review of Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, ‘Gender and Timebound Commandments in Judaism’- Guest Post by Raphael Magarik

ShanksImplicit in the title of Elizabeth Shanks Alexander’s new book, Gender and Timebound Commandments in Judaism, is the question: What does gender have to do with “time-bound, positive commandments”? What motivates rabbinic texts to rule that women are exempt from those mitzvot? And as the phrase “in Judaism” implies, this question arrives entangled in important arguments over how Jewish women ought to practice today. Continue reading

English, Readings

Black Like a Raven: Menstruation and Aesthetics

With my book, The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press) in production and due out later this year, I have finally been able to return to research I first conducted for my dissertation, which looked at the rabbinic laws of menstruation in light of Zoroastrian parallels. I hope to use the space of the Talmud Blog to think “out-loud” through some of the issues – large and small – that I suddenly find myself confronting as I turn this project into a book.  What I will be presenting are readings, meditations about gender, and (formerly) personal thoughts connected to the larger questions of meaning that one is not really “allowed” to ask in academic discourse. I hope readers will indulge me this virtual confession booth, and that you will chime in with your thoughts and reactions along the way.

Filipp Malyavin, "Whirlwind" (1906)

Filipp Malyavin, “Whirlwind” (1906).

Writing in the humanities is a consciously aesthetic form of expression. Yes, the register is critical, even “scientific.” But the truth is that most scholars study people and their cultural productions because humankind is at heart, beautiful and tragic, and ultimately, tragically beautiful. When the charity is absent, the writing does not just fall flat. It bubbles with a venom and scalds the reader.

What happens when the beauty of a certain facet of humanity – especially a religious phenomenon – comes off as unsavory and even disgusting to nearly everyone but the scholar who is totally devoted to its study?  I carried this heavy feeling with me while writing my dissertation on the rabbinic laws of menstrual impurity in light of corresponding Zoroastrian texts.  Why menstruation? Why impurity? Why gender politics and strange Zoroastrians, and the darkness of Babylonia, the distances between men and women, and particularly, the messiness of niddah with its rags, spotting and colors?

I recently came across a poignant midrash that I must have learned before yet it somehow never really registered. The text speaks foremost of the ever-relevant conundrum of finding something meaningful to say when the wellsprings have all dried up. I am sure it still speaks to contemporary rabbis racking their brains for sermon ideas during the harsh winter Sabbaths of Leviticus.

Leviticus Rabbah 19.3 ed. Margalioth 424   

ר’ שמע’  בר’ יצחק  פתר קרייה בפרשותיה שלתורה, אפעלפי שהן נראות כאילו כאורות כאילו שחורות לאומרן ברבים, כגון הלכות זיבה ונגעים, אמ’ הקב’ה הרי הן עריבות עלי.  הה”ד  וערבה  לי”י  מנחת  יהודה  וירושלם. תדע לך שהוא כן שהרי פרשת זב וזבה לא נאמרו באחת, אלא זו בפני עצמה וזו בפני עצמה,  “איש  איש  כי  יהיה  זב  מבשרו”, “ואשה  כי  יזוב  זוב  דמה”.

R. Shimʿon b. R. Yitzḥaq explained the verse [“(His locks are…) black as a raven” –Song of Songs 5:11] as referring to portions of the Torah.  Even though they can seem as if they are ugly, as if they are too black to discuss in public – for example the laws of discharges and skin diseases – the Holy One blessed is He said: “They are pleasing (ʿarevot) to me”.  This is what is said: “Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing (ʿarvah) to the Lord” (Malachi 2.15). You should know that this really is true. For the portion dealing with the zav and zava were not said as one, rather this one by itself and this one by itself: “When any man has a discharge issuing from his member” (Leviticus 15:2); “When a woman has had a discharge of blood” (Leviticus 15:25).

Leviticus Rabbah is a homiletical Midrash, which according to one school of thought means that – even if only very distantly – it reflects a form of public discourse that took place in the quaint synagogues of late antique Palestine.  One can almost see R. Shimʿon b. R. Yitzḥaq struggling mightily to find some comforting message for local synagogue attendees as they read Leviticus 15, with its bloody and seminal discharges.  In frustration, he nearly admits that these parts of the Bible are nothing short of revolting – they are as “black” as a raven.

The genius of this passage is the way it non-judgmentally establishes a distinction between human and Divine aesthetics, yet at the same time questions the validity of the human view. The passage turns on the modifier “seem” and the question of aesthetic “truth.”  In rabbinic aesthetics, black is seen as unattractive. Yet this beauty judgment is simultaneously turned on its head. The classical interpretation of the Songs verse “I am black but beautiful” is not far from “black is beautiful” since it calls into question the original aesthetical claim that black is not beautiful.

It is just as difficult to talk about hideous skin diseases, various bodily functions, and their governing rituals today as it was in the fourth century C.E. – although the reasons for this, in a secular age, may be different.  Even in late antiquity there were rabbis who wished that Leviticus 15 was shorter (something not too difficult to achieve, given its chiastic structure of a. irregular male discharge; b. regular male discharge; a’. regular female discharge; and b’. irregular female discharge). Yet God is depicted as lovingly lingering over the very topics that humans prefer to rush through. The message of this midrash is that human revulsion at menstruation is understandable, but ultimately misguided and immature. God is able to recognize the beauty of these topics which people incorrectly see as “black.” Of course the midrash does not suggest how one is to gain an appreciation of the “pleasing” nature of menstruation.

There has been much writing about the laws of Niddah since the feminist turn in Jewish studies (which I suppose dates back to the 1970s). Some of the scholarship is apologetic, some openly hostile, and while some succeeds in striking a balance of sorts. I suppose the fact that these laws were – and remain – profoundly meaningful sites of religious experience for many women (and men?) should somehow lead the way to seeing its beauty.  Even if the writing must be critical, and the male power-plays not shoved under the rug, there must be a way to achieve a beautiful, productive sympathy.

English, Reviews

On the Margins: A Review of E. Marienberg’s ‘La Baraïta de-Niddah’

Description: Description: C:\Users\Evyatar\Dropbox\Evyatar docs\Livre - BdN\Final Book\Cover-Front-jpg.jpgEvyatar Marienberg, La Baraïta de-Niddah ברייתא דנידה. Un texte juif pseudo-talmudic sur les lois religieuses relatives à la menstruation (Bibliothèque de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes Sciences Religieuses 157; Paris : Brepols, 2012).

The Baraita deNidah is one of those compositions that should trouble anyone who is interested in the study of rabbinic literature. Its very existence, history of transmission and reception defy traditional views of the rabbinic corpus on both ideological and Halakhic respects. The recent edition of the text by Evyatar Marienberg, with its excellent reproduction of the witnesses and the extremely rich and helpful introduction, is therefore an exciting event. This book is a revised version of the second part of the author’s doctoral dissertation, published in French a decade ago as Niddah. Lorsque les juifs conceptualisent la menstruation (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2003).

The Baraita de-Nidah made its first appearance in the field of modern rabbinic studies with the edition of Haim Meir Horowitz. An Orthodox Jew from Frankfurt, Horowitz owned a bookshop where he sold new and old Jewish books as well as some manuscripts. He published several rare rabbinic texts, among which was our “Baraita” in 1890. Marienberg reproduces the main manuscript upon which Horowitz based his edition (the manuscript itself is now lost). Also published here are all of the other witnesses of the text, which are much shorter. The longest among them is preserved in manuscript Parma Palatina 2342 (De Rossi 541) where our text is entitled הלכות נידה and occupies two out of 284 folios. Other witnesses are found in some medieval rabbinic works such as the Kol Bo, Likkutei ha-Pardes and ha-Rokeah. Each one of the ten witnesses is described by the author and even more importantly, is transcribed by him separately and then in a synoptic edition. Four witnesses contain the story of the birth of Rabbi Ishmael, which is also known from another sources. Based on a philological analysis, the author concludes however that this story did not figure in the original version of the Baraita.

The text, or more precisely the family of texts (one is almost tempted to use here the term “macroform”) offer a series of halakhot in matters of nidah which are far stricter than the ones we find in “normal” (and normative) rabbinic literature. Particularly, the menstruating woman’s capacity to defile is extremely exaggerated when compared to talmudic sources. This lead some scholars to link the Baraitha to the Zoroastrian environment of Babylonian Jewry (p. 66). The problem with this hypothesis, as indicated by the author, is that most scholars believe that our text was redacted in Palestine– it is written in Hebrew and mentions only Palestinian sages. However, as Marienberg argues, one should not rule out a non Palestinian origin of the text (he proposes Italy and the Byzantine Empire). Of course, a Babylonian origin is still possible. Marienberg mentions Ephraïm Kanarfogel and Sharon Koren who connect the Baraita to Heikhalot literature. If we situate the origin of the latter in Babylonia, it may be used as another argument to support a Babylonian origin of the tractate.

Marienberg mentions several theories concerning the reasons the text was written in the first place. Some of them were already raised by Horowitz, particularly the possibility that the small tractate was a Karaite composition since some of its teachings resemble Karaite practices. Thus, it is conceivable that the tractate was written either in order to mock the talmudic tradition or to criticize it by showing that the rabbis of the talmudic period shared some of the ideas that were defended by the Karaites. However, Horowitz himself ruled against the possibility of a Karaite origin, as did most of the scholars who later dealt with the question. This interesting debate together with some others related to the date and the Sitz im Leben of the text are summarized by Marienberg in his introduction. In general, Marienberg is very cautious and quotes Daniel Sperber’s conclusion from the article dedicated to the Baraita in the revised edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, according to which neither the date nor the author of the text can be determined with certainty. Marienberg does, however, suggest that the text was redacted after the talmudic period.

In another important part of the introduction the author discusses the reception and influence of the text after its composition. The rarity of manuscripts shows that at least the two long recensions (Horowitz and De Rossi) were not well-diffused in the Jewish world. However, we do find references and even quotations of the text in some popular medieval books and commentaries. The most famous example is probably Nahmanides’ exegesis on Genesis 31:35 which quotes some of the teachings of the tractate and refers to it as ברייתא של מסכת נידה.  According to one of Marienberg’s conclusions, the tractate was used and quoted mainly by authors living in a Christian environment. He proposes to connect this phenomenon to the absence of a direct confrontation with Karaites in the Ashkenazi world – since the teachings of the tractate are close to some karaite practices, rabbinic authors from Islamic environments, where the karaite movement was relatively strong, felt much less comfortable using it.

Finally, Marienberg proposes to see the Baraita as one of the “minor tractates” whose status in the rabbinic corpus is somewhat liminal. He reminds us that one of the reasons that these tractates came to be considered as belonging to the talmudic corpus is the fact that they were included in the 19th century Romm edition of the Bavli. Horowitz edited the text after the publication of the Romm edition. Thus, Marienberg raises the possibility that an earlier publication of the Baraita, and its subsequent inclusion in the Romm edition, would have changed its place in the rabbinic corpus, enhancing its status as an official rabbinic text. This question is left open. Given the great anxiety pronounced by the author of the Baraita towards menstruating women, maybe it is for the best that this extremely misogynistic text was left outside the “official” edition of the Talmud.

This important publication adds another element to the debate regarding the limits of the talmudic corpus and talmudic culture in general. That is why the thesis about the relationship between this text and Heikhalot literature is so compelling – if we consider, together with Michael Swartz and more recently Moulie Vidas, that the Heikhalot corpus was redacted inside the walls of the Babylonian Yeshiva but not by the same authorities that produced the Babylonian Talmud, we can ask whether the status of the tractate as semi-rabbinic text reflects the position of its authors who acted somewhere on the margins of what became the normative rabbinic discourse.  This may provide us with a multidimensional picture of the early medieval rabbinic movement, in matters of authority, scholarship, Halakha and of course – gender.

English, Guest Posts

A Monumental Loss for Jewish Learning- Guest Post by Moriah Be’er Chriki, Yedidah Koren and Davida Klein Velleman

This post, crossposted from The Times of Israel, is the first in a series on the state of advanced Talmud study for women. 

In a world just opening its eyes to the possibility of women’s advanced and committed Torah study, the closing of the Advanced Talmudic Institute at MATAN, an institution which pioneered women’s study of Talmud, is a tragedy.

In the past few decades, the gates of Torah study have been opened to women, tapping into a previously underutilized sector of our community. Our generation has been privileged to witness and experience tremendous progress in the religious education of women, as, one by one, institutes, seminaries, and houses of study for women were established and thrived as centers for learning and teaching Torah.

In accordance with these developments, today’s women have soared to new heights, becoming active participants in realms previously closed to them – as halakhic advisers, as advocates in rabbinical courts, and even as heads of batei midrash (houses of study).

As women who have devoted their time to Torah study, how fortunate have we felt to actively take a part in this world, one which was largely inaccessible to our mothers and grandmothers.

Unfortunately, these advancements are undermined with the closing of our beit midrash, the Advanced Talmudic Institute at MATAN, at the end of this year.

MATAN, the Sadie Rennert Women’s Institute for Torah Studies, was established in 1988. The Advanced Talmudic Institute began its first cohort in 1999, and is a leading program in advanced study for women. The Talmudic Institute offers its students the unique opportunity to delve deep into the world of the Talmud, using both traditional and modern methods to understand this literary and spiritual gem of Jewish tradition. Over the course of the three-year program, students hone their skills and broaden their knowledge, as they strive to impact the world of learning in particular, and society and culture in general. To help build these future scholars, educators, and religious leaders, MATAN offers students a living stipend.

The Talmudic Institute has proven itself over the years, as its graduates have filled a variety of roles in secondary school and higher education, both in Israel and in the United States, and brought sensitivity and knowledge to the religious leadership. This year, 12 fellows comprise the sixth cohort of the Institute.

But, at the end of this year, the Advanced Talmudic Institute at MATAN will be shut down prematurely. Despite the personal obstacles this has created for us, our greater concern is the implication this has for the wider Jewish community.

The Advanced Talmudic Institute at MATAN is one of the only programs for women in Israel that focuses on high-level Talmud study. Closure of the Talmudic Institute will be a huge step back in the world of Torah study for women. Not only will those seeking to learn suffer, but there will be a community-wide impact as well. This powerhouse for training women to be educators in institutions of Torah study will no longer be able to provide the Jewish community with talented and able female leaders. The institutions that have begun to open their doors to women will no longer be able to turn to MATAN to instruct and support aspiring students of Talmud.

Most of the current students at MATAN have studied Talmud in university and will continue to do so. Although we appreciate the important tools that world offers us, do we want to send the message to Jewish women that the only place they can study this most central text is in academia? A university setting cannot replace the beit midrash, which facilitates careful, intensive Talmud study in an environment that allows one to immerse oneself in its reality.

We are in the middle of a unique historical process that is changing the face of religious Zionist society. The women’s Torah-study revolution is not over; it has barely begun. We must not let it fade into the paleness of a face behind a curtain.

Moriah Be’er Chriki, Yedidah Koren and Davida Klein Velleman are fellows in the sixth cohort of the Advanced Talmudic Institute at MATAN.

UPDATE: Matan issues an update and a clarification.

English, Reviews

Review of Why Study Talmud in the Twenty-first Century

In 2009, Paul Socken edited a collection of articles entitled Why Study Talmud in the Twenty-first Century.  It is for the most part a finely curated group of essays that provide real insight into the inner-world of modern Talmudists – even if there are some minor organizational problems (some with gender implications).  In the most recent Shofar Magazine, Ricky Hidary offers a great summary and assessment of the collection, which I can attest is well worth the read, and if you buy books, the money.

English, Recent Publications

RSK’s New Book and Paradigms of Gender Research

In a recent review at the Review of Biblical Literature, Gail Streete looks at Ross Shepard Kraemer‘s newest book, Unreliable Witnesses: Religion, Gender, and History in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean.  It is a fascinating take on how one of the foremost gender theorists working on Ancient Judaism has changed her views over the past few decades. In many ways, RSK’s (if you’ll pardon my French) evolution mirrors some of the debates still current among Talmudists, where feminists like Charlotte Fonrobert and, it seems to me, Daniel Boyarin, claim that female voices can be discovered in rabbinic works by reading closely for disturbances in the textual architecture, and scholars like Ishay Rosen-Zvi who have despaired of ever accomplishing such  “recoveries.”

In other reviewing news, Josh Lambert over at Tablet Magazine, lists a number of interesting recent and forthcoming publications on identity and conversion, including Matthew Thiessen’s Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity, and an edited volume entitled Sacrifice, Scripture and Substitution: Readings in Ancient Judaism and Christianity. Also of some interest is Yoel Finkelman’s forthcoming book on Artscroll (scroll down).

Conferences, English, Guest Posts

SBL Conference Day 2 – Guest Post by Ari Lamm

  continued from day 1

I got a bit of a later start on Tuesday than I had on Monday.  Busy packing up our London apartment for our move back to New York – my wife and daughter had already made their way home a week earlier – I ended up missing the first two lectures of Tuesday’s initial block of sessions.  Fortunately, I managed to attend several fantastic lectures over the course of the day.

As soon as my Northern Line train pulled into Waterloo Station I navigated my way through the complex maze of underpasses leading to the King’s College campus, and dashed upstairs to the “Non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls: Themes and Perspectives” section. This session was convened specifically to address the topic, “Images of the Feminine in the Dead Sea Scrolls.” I arrived just in time to get my laptop ready for Claire Ruth Pfann’ (University of the Holy Land) presentation entitled, “Women at Qumran: Fact or Fiction?” Making use of what she referred to as a revised version of De Vaux’s chronology of the site, Pfann concluded that throughout the history of habitation at Qumran, finds that might indicate the presence of women (e.g. hairnets, feminine fabric patterns, jewelry, spindle whorls, etc.) are absent. During the period Pfann has designated IIb (66-68 CE), however, we begin to find in sealed loci possible indicators of female habitation of the site. These finds continue to appear in layer III (post-73 CE). Pfann thus sees evidence for Revolt-related female habitation at Qumran just prior to the revolt (during a period beginning in 66 CE), but not beforehand.

The discussion period following Pfann’s presentation produced the most heated exchange that I had seen at SBL to that point. Jodi Magness (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) questioned Pfann’s decision to posit a separate stage of habitation commencing in 66 CE, rather than a single period beginning some time early in the reign of Herod Archelaus (i.e. around 4 BCE). Pfann’s view, doggedly defended during the subsequent session break by Stephen Pfann (University of the Holy Land), is that an observable change in material culture before and after 66 CE – as well as the eventual presence at the site of Revolt-era coins (97 from Year 2, and 3 from Year 3) – is sufficient to suggest a separate habitation, which may be dated to 66 CE. Magness countered – as far as I could understand (and hear…things got pretty tense!) – that no “change in material culture” in fact occurred. Instead, the original inhabitants from approximately 4 BCE simply adapted to evolving tastes in dishware and the like. In other words, Magness strenuously insisted, no evidence exists that should force us to suggest a fresh habitation of the site in 66 CE.

Once presentations resumed following the break, I returned to the same section only to encounter my least favorite presentation of the conference: Paul Heger’s (University of Toronto) paper entitled, “The Status of Women in Scripture, Rabbinic and Qumran Literatures.” At the risk of oversimplifying things (although this tendency was precisely my problem with the paper itself), Heger argued that while the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic literature all more or less agree that women possess a subordinate legal status, the Rabbis venture even further in saddling women with a subordinate social status as well.

Paul Gaugin, "Eve - Don't Listen to the Liar.' 1889. Watecolor and paste. Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, TX. courtesy of wikicommons.

Heger introduced his lecture by presenting what he saw as a simple, unbiased reading of the Fall from Eden narrative. In Heger’s view, the text does not fault Eden any more so than Adam for sinning against God; in fact, as Heger implied at several points during his talk, the biblical narrative may even skew against Adam on occasion.

Heger then seemed to assume that the soundness of his reading should be readily apparent to most, perhaps all those who engage the text. Given this, Heger employed his reading as the standard against which both Qumranic and rabbinic  interpretations should be measured. Heger then proceeded to highlight commentary on this narrative from various Dead Sea Scroll sources, which he noted tended to see this episode as a cautionary tale against man’s lustful and generally sinful nature. Eve, he noted, is not implicated as a villain in these readings.

In contrast, Heger pointed to a slew of rabbinic texts, culled from sources as diverse as the Tosefta, Genesis Rabbah, and the Bavli, that cast Eve, especially her feminine sexuality, as the primary culprit in humankind’s Fall. Although noting that exceptions exist, Heger viewed this as the dominant depiction of Eve within rabbinic literature, and as such an indicator that the Rabbis went further than other erstwhile Biblical interpreters in marginalizing women. Heger noted, however, that the Rabbis may not have been directly concerned – at least in this context – with women’s social status per se. Their excessive social demotion of women, therefore, may have been a mere byproduct of an earnest inquiry into the dangers of sexual temptation for males concerned to avoid transgression.

I found Heger’s paper deeply unsatisfying from both a methodological and interpretative perspective. During the discussion period I raised several points with respect to the former. First, I asked that we consider the hazards of attempting to create a coherent programmatic statement out of rabbinic texts drawn from a variety of disparate geographical and chronological contexts. On a related note, I pointed out the problematic nature of referring to “the Rabbis” – as if reducing several hundred years of complex and multivalent development into a single corporate identity somehow makes things simpler instead of vastly more complicated. Finally, I commented that some of the texts to which Heger pointed over the course of his analysis (BT Yoma 18b, in particular) have actually been noted for their reflection of a specifically Sasanian milieu, rather than as merely several points on a broad, rabbinic continuum.

Heger responded rather forcefully that by no means had he suggested that “the Rabbis” only had negative things to say about women. The denigration of Eve, however, is so pervasive throughout rabbinic thought that, in Heger’s view, we may deduce the rabbinic view of women (or some part of it) from the texts in which it appears as a theme. I did not feel at all that this answer addressed my question.

Following Heger’s paper, those who stayed until the end of the morning session were treated to a phenomenal paper by Shani Tzoref (listed as University of Sydney, but announced beforehand as affiliated with the Israel Antiquities Authority). This paper remained my favorite of the conference. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to cover this paper, along with the rest of the lectures I attended throughout the remainder of Day 2, in a subsequent post.

Ari Lamm is concluding a year as a Fulbright scholar based at University College, London and the School of Oriental and African Studies.