Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Jewish Women in the Middle Ages

On Jewish Women’s Writings

One interesting example of the latter form of publication is the story of Rashi and his daughters. While many know of Rashi's liberal attitude towards his daughters' donning of tefillin, few may have heard that towards the end of his life, as Rashi grew ill, his daughters actually wrote many of his halachic responsa for him. As a battle wages on today over the issue of whether or not women can give halachic psak, this historical precedent is certainly worth considering.

Meanwhile, other learned Jewish women of the time were unabashedly writing works under their own names. Dulcie, the respected wife of Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, was known as a religious poetess. In addition, she would give public lectures on Shabbat, and in this way supported her family. She died in 1215, murdered by two Christian Knights of the Cross.

Then, too, there were women copyists like Paola, the granddaughter of Rabbi Nathan ben Yehiel (1035-1110), who transcribed Biblical commentaries that may still be read today in Breslau archives. While transcription is hardly a form of original expression, it does attest to a level of scholarship achieved by women of this time, as well as the apparent social acceptance of women writing.

Further evidence of this can be found in letters composed by women of this period which survived in the Cairo Genizah. Many of these letters are written in elegant Hebrew and reference various Biblical stories even as they speak of everyday affairs. For example, one letter written by Lady Maliha to her family in Egypt, opens with the following wish:

"May peace from Heaven...be bestowed upon you...and a long life like his who became father of the people, or his who was bound as a victim on a high mountain, or of Jacob, the plain man, or of him who sprinkled blood on the altar seven times."

Maliha's words attest to her knowledge of the stories of the patriarchs and Aaron the high priest. Thus many women at this stage were well-educated and had begun to write on a variety of topics, though none had yet published a halachic work under her own name.

During the Middle Ages, many more women began to write everything from memoirs to epics to halachic teshuvot.. The causes of this increase in authorship are numerous. The first major reason we have more literature from women of this period is simply historical: the more recent the era, the more documents will remain in our possession. Second, technological advances meant that writing implements and surfaces were more accessible.

Third and most importantly, by the fourteenth century, women's education had begun to improve dramatically. In the secular world, particularly Renaissance Italy, all kinds of educational opportunities were opening for interested ladies. The trend spread to the Jewish world, and in 1475, a group of Italian Jewish women began to operate a Talmud Torah for girls in Rome.

Literacy was increasing as well, and while many women still could not understand Hebrew, various Yiddish novels and mussar books were published for their benefit. This development allowed for the cultivation of a larger literary appreciation among women who might otherwise not have opened a book at all.

In the synagogue, where women had trouble reading and comprehending the Hebrew prayers, a tradition began of appointing a zogerke, a woman who would help lead the others through the service. Additionally, in the seventeenth century, Jewish men and women began to compose tkhines, or Yiddish prayers, written for women who felt too isolated by the Hebrew prayers they could not understand. The increasing communal commitment to women's education, literacy, and inclusion in ritual allowed for a dramatic increase in female authorship.

No comments: