Medieval Jewish Women Were Leaders in Religion and Business

New information about the economic and religious lives of medieval Jewish women.

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Rabbis Reined in the Rebels

At the end of the Middle Ages women's privileged posi­tion began to diminish. The rabbis feared that women had become too arrogant, they saw them as mordot (rebels). Some refused to have sexual relations with their husbands or do chores, perhaps to bring about a divorce.

In contrast to common assumptions, Grossman notes, the divorce rate was very high in the medieval period. While in Sephardic communities there was an estimated 20 ­percent divorce rate, Grossman believes that among Ash­kenazim it was even higher, because women were easily able to obtain a divorce, and some were wealthy enough to support themselves.

With the rise in Christian persecution during the four­teenth and fifteenth centuries, the rabbis felt that the family structure had to be strengthened. This led to a flurry of new laws and customs affecting family life, marriage, and divorce. In German towns like Worms and Speier they ruled that a couple couldn't divorce without permission from the rabbis of three communities. In some cases they threatened that divorced women would forfeit their fortunes.

Changing Focus Reveals New Information

Though Grossman has written a far-reaching work, he is only part of a revolution in Jewish his­toriography. Israeli historians, many of them wom­en, are digging into archives and seeking primary sources in folk material to unearth the active role women have played throughout the centuries. The view that men should be the primary focus in Jewish history--after all, they were the kings and priests, the community leaders and scholars--is slowly changing.

“It cuts across all period of Jewish history,” says Renee Levine Melammed, who teaches a graduate course on Jewish women in historical perspective at the Schecter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. “Students are amazed to discover that there was an independent entrepreneur who divorced her husband in Elephantine, Egypt, in the fifth century BCE, or that Asnat Barazani was a rosh yeshivah in seventeenth-century Kurdistan.

In Heretics or Daughters of Israel, Melammed explains that it was the women in Spain who during the Inquisition preserved Jewish identity and tradition.

Elisheva Baumgarten, a lecturer at Bar Ilan University, wrote her doctorate on “Mothers and Children in Medieval Ashkenaz.” She investigated rites and child-rearing practices from birth through school age and came across a well-known treatise called Chalei Ha’mila (Rules of Circumcision) written by a mohel. By focusing on three often overlooked pages where the mohel relates what Jewish midwives said about birthing techniques, she presents voices never heard previously.

According to an American woman historian who prefers to remain anonymous, “Israeli scholars have locked out the women historians who focus on gender study.” Grossman is unusual because he is the first Israeli male scholar to start asking questions about Jewish women’s roles…

For Grossman, it’s all a matter of asking the right questions. “As far as the Middle Ages,” he says, “once the questions were primarily about anti-semitism and religious thinking, and now historians are asking about women’s role.”

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Rochelle Furstenberg

Rochelle Furstenberg is a Jerusalem-based journalist and critic. She has written extensively on Hebrew literature in a variety of books and periodicals, and has a regular column on Israeli life and culture in Hadassah Magazine.