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.