Sacred Books for Women…

H.L. Strack and Gunter Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash: Second Edition, trans. and ed. Markus Bockmuehl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996) 9.

The instruction of girls was on the whole rejected (cf. the controversy in Sot 3.4).

I actually read this Mishnah passage a few days ago. I even marked it! Why did it stand out to me? I guess it was because of the movie Yentl, in which Barbara Streisand plays a Jewish women who pretends to be a man so she can study the Torah and Talmud. According to the movie, Jewish women were not allowed to study the Jewish sacred tradition. I remember one scene in which a traveling salesman is advertising his books, saying, “Picture books for women, sacred books for men.”

And so I was a little surprised to read a rabbi in the Mishnah saying that “[a] man ought to give his daughter a knowledge of the Law” (Danby translation). Danby has a footnote that refers to M. Nedarim 4:3, which affirms that a man “may teach Scripture to his sons and to his daughters.” A footnote there states, however, that some manuscripts omit “and to his daughters.” The issue of instructing women in the Jewish sacred tradition was controversial.

In this post, I want to look at M. Sotah 3:4 as well as the comments about this passage in the Babylonian Talmud. I will use the English translation in my Judaic Classics Library, focusing on the issue of whether women were allowed to learn Torah.

Mishnah Tractate Sotah concerns a ritual in Numbers 5:11-31, in which a suspected adulteress and her jealous husband come to the priest to determine if the woman has committed adultery. She drinks a strange mixture, and, if she’s guilty, she comes to experience pain and loses the ability to have children. If she’s innocent, however, she can continue to conceive offspring.

M. Sotah 3:4 states the following (and I apologize for the caps):  SHE HAD SCARCELY FINISHED DRINKING WHEN HER FACE TURNS GREEN, HER EYES PROTRUDE AND HER VEINS SWELL; AND IT IS EXCLAIMED, REMOVE HER THAT THE TEMPLE-COURT BE NOT DEFILED’. IF SHE POSSESSED A MERIT, IT [CAUSES THE WATER] TO SUSPEND ITS EFFECT UPON HER. SOME MERIT SUSPENDS THE EFFECT FOR ONE YEAR, ANOTHER FOR TWO YEARS, AND ANOTHER FOR THREE YEARS. HENCE DECLARED BEN AZZAI, A MAN IS UNDER THE OBLIGATION TO TEACH HIS DAUGHTER TORAH, SO THAT IF SHE HAS TO DRINK [THE WATER OF BITTERNESS], SHE MAY KNOW THAT THE MERIT SUSPENDS ITS EFFECT. R. ELIEZER SAYS: WHOEVER TEACHES HIS DAUGHTER TORAH TEACHES HER OBSCENITY. R. JOSHUA SAYS: A WOMAN PREFERS ONE KAB AND SEXUAL INDULGENCE TO NINE KAB AND CONTINENCE. HE USED TO SAY, A FOOLISH PIETIST, A CUNNING ROGUE, A FEMALE PHARISEE, AND THE PLAGUE OF PHARISEES BRING DESTRUCTION UPON THE WORLD.

According to the notes, what is going on is this: An adulteress who drinks the mixture may be safe from its effects for quite some time, provided that she has merits. For Ben Azzai, a man should teach his daughter the Torah so that she knows this; otherwise, she may commit adultery, drink the mixture, see that nothing happens, and conclude that she can keep on being an adulteress without negative consequences. The Mishnah then records misogynist voices: Rabbi Eliezer says teaching a woman Torah is teaching her obscenity. Rabbi Joshua states that women prefer a simple lifestyle with sexual promiscuity to a life of luxury with sexual restraint. And Joshua also used to say that a female Pharisee (perhaps a woman who knows the Torah) brings destruction to the world.

In the Babylonian Talmud’s commentary on M. Sotah 3:4 (B.T. Sotah 20a-22b), the question is raised: What is the “merit” of the adulteress that the Mishnah talks about? There’s then a debate about whether it’s her study of the Torah or her obedience to the commandments that delivers her from the drink’s perilous effects, and “study of the Torah” wins out. Rabina then points out that women are not required to study Torah, so they can’t get merit from something they’re not commanded to do in the first place. The answer to this problem is: ”granted that women are not so commanded, still when they have their sons taught Scripture and Mishnah and wait for their husbands until they return from the Schools, should they not share [the merit] with them?” So a woman gets merit for Torah study when she sees to their children’s education (at the hands of others) and supports her husband’s study of the Torah.

B.T. Sotah 21b doesn’t address Ben Azzai’s claim that a man should teach his daughter the Torah, but it does try to clarify Rabbi Eliezer’s statement that a man who teaches his daughter Torah teaches her obscenity. The Talmud says that the man doesn’t actually teach his daughter obscenity, but teaching her Torah is like teaching her obscenity. In his book, Women and the Study of the Torah, Joel Wolowelsky explains the Gemara’s clarification of Rabbi Eliezer’s position:

The Gemara in Sotah 21b, in clarifying R. Eliezer’s position, explains that the reason for his stance is based on the verse “I wisdom have made subtlety my dwelling” (Proverbs 8:12), that is, when wisdom (Torah) enters a man, subtlety enters with it. Rashi, who understands the term tiflut to mean lechery, explains that according to R. Eliezer, if a woman is taught Torah she will acquire wisdom or subtlety, and will thus understand how to conduct immoral affairs without being found out. (22)

So, here at least, the Gemara seems to side with the misogynist voices, asserting that a little knowledge of Torah in women is a dangerous thing.

There’s more nuance on this issue in the Babylonian Talmud’s comments on M. Nedarim 4:3, or at least in the (Soncino?) notes. I won’t rack my brain over this passage right now, but I will quote a note, which offers a taste of the complexity of the issue:

From this we see that it was usual to teach the Bible to girls, in spite of the Talmudic deduction that daughters need not be educated (Kid. 30a). The opposition of R. Eliezer to teaching Torah to one’s daughter (Sot. 20a: He who teaches his daughter Torah is as though he taught her lewdness) was probably directed against the teaching of the Oral Law, and the higher branches of study. [V. Maim. Yad. Talmud Torah, I, 13.] Yet even in respect of this, his view was not universally accepted, and Ben ‘Azzai (a.l.) regarded it as a positive duty to teach Torah to one’s daughters. The context shows that the reference is to the higher knowledge of Biblical law. In point of fact, there were learned women in Talmudic times e.g., Beruriah, wife of R. Meir (Pes. 62b).

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Sacred Books for Women…

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