A Medieval Jewish Scholar’s “Feminist” Reading of a Talmudic Passage

Written in a mixture of Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic (a Jewish dialect of Arabic written in Hebrew characters), a fragment found in the Cairo Genizah and authored by an anonymous medieval scholar presents a decidedly modern reading of the decidedly un-feminist opening of the talmudic tractate Kiddushin, which begins “A woman is acquired in three ways.” Zvi Stampfer writes:

Why use the passive voice and not simply say “a man betroths a woman in three possible ways”? . . . . The Talmud states that the focus on the woman is to emphasize that the marriage cannot take place without her will. Our commentator takes this one step further and offers an interpretation that can be seen as a “feminist reading” of the Talmud.

According to this interpretation, the Jewish sages taught that in the marriage contract the groom seems active and the bride passive, while in fact the opposite is the case. The groom’s role in the ceremony is to satisfy the bride’s will and to act accordingly. This is why the groom gives his bride a ring (or equivalent). Perhaps our anonymous commentator sought to advise young couples in how they should interact and respect each other throughout their married life.

It is fascinating to see a medieval scholar espousing such an apparently “modern” approach to the relationship between husband and wife. The concept that women have their own will, separate from that of their husbands—a will that men should listen to and respect—is relatively uncommon in medieval literature. Furthermore, our medieval scholar undertook a creative re-reading of the traditional Jewish text. While maintaining a respect for its authority, he used it as a [basis] for reading his ideas on the relations between the sexes into the very texts that seem to posit the opposite.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Cambridge University Library

More about: Cairo Geniza, Feminism, Jewish marriage, Religion & Holidays, Talmud

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy