Seder Nashim (Women)

Seder Nashim's primary concern is the protection of society's "exceptional" members.

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In addition to confronting the issue of reliance on divine intervention, the Mishnah more generally supports at least one ideal behind the sotah system. Placing any wife in a position where a jealous or otherwise untrustworthy husband can lie about transgression, in court or another public forum, counters the rabbinic principle of protecting both members in a relationship. The rabbis emphasize a very public ritual exclusively in the hands of the priests, not those of an unbalanced husband. While the Mishnah does not entirely invalidate the trial by ordeal of the suspected adulteress, it does whittle down its strength and emphasize its many weaknesses.

Gittin (Divorce Certificates) and Kiddushin (Betrothals)

A get (pl. gittin) refers to a style of legal document employed both in divorce proceedings and in the release of slaves. Drawing on the biblical citation of gittin in the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), the primary focus of the mishnaic discussion of gittin is proper composition and delivery of the document, not the emotional or social causes or results of dissolving a union.

The specifics of Tractate Kiddushin, one of the most often studied and discussed sections of the Gemara and later commentaries, have little biblical precedent.  Both Gittin and Kiddushin follow a pattern of focusing on the legal and technical distinctions of the specific documents and transactions, and the categories of the people affected by them.

Like a widow or a person taking on a vow, individuals either entering or leaving a bond of marriage must not be allowed to remain with their status transitional or undefined. While the intensity of concern over legal status may overlook the emotional toll of these transitions, an important part of the Mishnah's intention is to protect people in transition from having an unclear (and thus problematic) personal status, or clouding or improperly affecting the social status of others.

The Relevance of Seder Nashim for Contemporary Jews

Though the contemporary reader may be uncomfortable with the seder's attempts to regulate human connections and obligations as well as the text's male point of view--particularly with regard to the various societal roles of women--Nashim provides a fascinating window onto the rabbinic attempt to map the shifting ground between private life and communal law.

By providing a guidebook for the intimate grammar of intersecting social categories and personal decisions, Nashim also provides a certain cohesion of purpose for the Mishnah's ideal society. Nashim emphasizes the Jewish communities' exceptional members--outsiders such as widows, overzealous seekers, and foreigners and non-Jews. Not only is consideration of outsiders necessary in constructing a societal model; the "other" provides necessary context for the insider to understand his or her status as well.

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Stephen H. Arnoff

Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the executive director of the 14th Street Y. He was previously the managing editor of Zeek and the director of Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y.