Jewish Women's Lives in the Muslim World

Part II: More Marriage, Divorce, Work and Education

Print this page Print this page

Religious Education and Observance

The incident raises questions about Jewish women’s educations and their involvement in Jewish communal religious life: our schoolmistress had certainly received an elementary education from someone, possibly from her own unworthy husband, perhaps in her childhood home. Nor was she unique in her leaning, however limited.

A twelfth century Jewish traveler from Spain reported that a community leader in Baghdad, Samuel ben Ali, had no sons, but had a daughter who was an expert in the Scriptures and Talmud. He wrote that “she gives instructions in Scripture to young men through a window. She herself is within the building, whilst the disciples are below outside and do not see her.”

On the whole, however, in line with traditional rabbinic norms and the practice of the surrounding Moslem environment, significant learning among women was rare. In all of the Cairo genizah there is not a single piece of writing, religious or otherwise, that may be attributed to a woman. 

Yet despite their general lack of learning, reference in genizah documents report that Jewish women were pious in their observance of the home-based laws incumbent upon them, and there are many indications that their attendance at synagogue was regular. Moreover, women also donated Torah scrolls for the service and oil and books for study and left legacies for the upkeep of the synagogue; and it is not farfetched to interpret these activities—found among Jewish women in Christian Europe, as well—as female strategies for imprinting her existence on a communal religious life from which they were otherwise barred. Still, it was as a mother of sons learned in Talmud that the Jewish woman in the Islamic world earned her spiritual reward in the eyes of her family and her society.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Judith Baskin

Judith Baskin is the Director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies and a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon.