Medieval Ashkenazi Women Pietists

In medieval Germany and northwestern France—an area then known as Ashkenaz—a number of Jewish women began putting on t’fillin, wearing garments with ritual fringes (tsitsit), and performing other religious rituals generally reserved for men. What’s more, they did so with rabbinic approval. This phenomenon, the subject of a new book by Elisheva Baumgarten, was a female version of medieval Jewish pietism, which—for both men and women—often involved adopting practices not required by the letter of Jewish law. Julie Mell writes in her review:

[M]edieval women’s active assumption of “time-bound commandments,” commandments from which they were legally exempt, was not a form of proto-feminism. As Baumgarten never fails to remind her readers, medieval Ashkenaz was a staunchly hierarchical and patriarchal society. Neither the halakhic authorities nor the women about whom they wrote ever questioned the categorical divide between men and women, even when they permitted women’s observance of those commandments reserved for men.

In fact, the same pious impulse that led women to break the gender boundary also led women to impose upon themselves what today would be considered gender exclusion. Particularly pious Jewish women, for instance, began absenting themselves from the synagogue in the late 11th and 12th centuries when their menstrual cycle rendered them impure. By the late 13th and 14th centuries, this became the norm for all Ashkenazi women, [although ceasing to be so in later centuries]. . . .

Baumgarten blazes a trail in the field of medieval Jewish history and law [by arguing that texts] and halakhah do not shape life and practice, but rather it is the other way around. Social custom and contemporary cultural settings led medieval rabbis to discover new things in old texts.

Read more at Marginalia

More about: Ashkenazi Jewry, Halakhah, History & Ideas, Judaism, Middle Ages, Women in Judaism

Israel Can’t Stake Its Fate on “Ironclad” Promises from Allies

Israeli tanks reportedly reached the center of the Gazan city of Rafah yesterday, suggesting that the campaign there is progressing swiftly. And despite repeatedly warning Jerusalem not to undertake an operation in Rafah, Washington has not indicated any displeasure, nor is it following through on its threat to withhold arms. Even after an IDF airstrike led to the deaths of Gazan civilians on Sunday night, the White House refrained from outright condemnation.

What caused this apparent American change of heart is unclear. But the temporary suspension of arms shipments, the threat of a complete embargo if Israel continued the war, and comments like the president’s assertion in February that the Israeli military response has been “over the top” all call into question the reliability of Joe Biden’s earlier promises of an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security. Douglas Feith and Ze’ev Jabotinsky write:

There’s a lesson here: the promises of foreign officials are never entirely trustworthy. Moreover, those officials cannot always be counted on to protect even their own country’s interests, let alone those of others.

Israelis, like Americans, often have excessive faith in the trustworthiness of promises from abroad. This applies to arms-control and peacekeeping arrangements, diplomatic accords, mutual-defense agreements, and membership in multilateral organizations. There can be value in such things—and countries do have interests in their reputations for reliability—but one should be realistic. Commitments from foreign powers are never “ironclad.”

Israel should, of course, maintain and cultivate connections with the United States and other powers. But Zionism is, in essence, about the Jewish people taking responsibility for their own fate.

Read more at JNS

More about: Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship