Medieval Jewish Attitudes Toward Women

In the Middle Ages, a Jewish woman's social well-being was considered important, but her life was strictly guided by Jewish law.

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Beyond the financial provisions for their daughters, they also attempted to provide for their emotional well-being, by writing in clauses to the betrothal contract to aid the wife in dissolving the marriage if she was unhappy. These contracts show that women were not treated solely as property or a medium of exchange and that their personal happiness was an important consideration.

Jewish Women in Europe

Much less is known about the everyday life of Jewish women in Europe, because the most studied material about the Jews of medieval Europe originates from the rabbinic class, rather than from a large cross-section of society. These writings contrast strikingly with the Cairo Geniza documents on the subject of a woman's freedom to exit a marriage.

The Talmud establishes that a woman who claims that she despises her husband is entitled to have the Jewish courts compel her husband to divorce her. While the Geniza contracts make financial provisions for the dissolution of a marriage at the wife's instigation, the tendency of the European rabbis was to restrict the wife's ability to demand a divorce.

The Spanish authority Rabbenu Asher (1250-1337) explained his rationale for these restrictions. A wife might claim to despise her husband simply because she desired some other man, and this was not a sufficient reason to compel a husband to divorce his wife. In this view of marriage, while the wife remained entitled to financial and other privileges, her feelings about her husband were not considered as important as his happiness with the marriage. This ruling may also reflect characterization of women as inconstant in their affections.

The French rabbis also restricted women's permission to perform commandments that are obligatory for men, but not for women. In particular, they argued that women should not wear phylacteries, because they were not as able as men to maintain physical purity. This ruling seems specifically connected to a concern about purity, rather than a desire to discourage women from performing the commandments, because the French rabbis ruled that women could recite blessings when performing commandments that are only obligatory upon men. 

Women and Mysticism

In many religious traditions, mysticism provided an arena in which women had the same access to the divine as men, but this does not appear to have been the case in medieval Europe, the center of the two medieval Jewish mystical movements, the Hasidei Ashkenaz and the Kabbalah. There are no famous female Jewish mystics associated with either movement.

The Hasidei Ashkenaz were extremely careful about fulfilling the commandments and also practiced acts of extreme piety, such as voluntary fasts, as well as magic rituals, to allow them to achieve a special perception of the divine. One of their major works, Sefer Hasidim (written by Rabbi Judah the Hasid in 12th century France), speaks of the importance of marrying a woman who is hasidah, the feminine form of the term for an initiate, hasid. However, women do not seem to have been involved in the magical practices or divine contemplation, and this hasidah may simply be a woman who is scrupulous in her ordinary religious observances.

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Alexandra Rothstein has an A.B. summa cum laude in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Jewish Studies. She is currently a PhD student in Rabbinic Literature and Islamic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.