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Review of Shanks Alexander, _Gender and Timebound Commandments in Judaism_

November 15th, 2013

Review of  Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, Gender and Timebound Commandments in Judaism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.  296 pp. $99.00.

By Rachel Furst

 

The Mishnah’s stipulation that men and women do not share the same mitzvah obligations – namely, that women are exempt from some categories of commandments that men are duty-bound to perform – has been understood by medieval and modern scholars alike as a programmatic statement concerning the role of women in Jewish tradition.  If the Sages exempted women from certain mitzvot, the thinking goes, they must have believed that something essential about women precludes their participation in those rituals.  Accordingly, the Mishnah’s well-known ruling that women are exempt from timebound positive commandments (such as sukkah, lulav, and tefillin) has generated a host of traditionalist, apologetic, and academic claims regarding the Sages’ insights into women’s nature, women’s roles, and the rhythms and restrictions of time.

Now, in an erudite, methodical, and thorough study of the relevant rabbinic texts, Elizabeth Shanks Alexander challenges this widespread assumption. She contends that the perception of these exemptions as programmatic stipulations designed to “construct gender” reflects the Mishnah’s later transmission rather than its authors’ original intent – which was simply to record legal tradition and effectively codify the insights of their own academic endeavors.  In other words: when the early Rabbis exempted women from certain mitzvot, their rulings were not contingent on those commandments being either timebound or positive, and extended speculation on the meaning of this category will yield no insight into rabbinic understandings of gender.  The book is divided into three sections: Part I focuses on the tannaitic material itself; Part II details its reception history, through the Talmudic period; and Part III returns to the earliest sources that exempted women from specific ritual activities, all associated with the study of Torah.

 In light of contemporary debates about the scope of women’s participation in Jewish ritual life, the title and topic of Shanks Alexander’s study may attract the attention of activists and non-academic audiences.  A warning to readers: this is an extremely academic book, which is largely about practices of reading Mishnah and other rabbinic texts.  That being said, the author is aware of the significance of this particular topic to contemporary audiences and does devote space both at the beginning and end of her study to considering its potential meanings and uses outside the academy.  In these sections, Shanks Alexander engages with the work of feminist scholars such as Judith Plaskow, Rachel Adler, and especially Tamar Ross, and these reflections are a worthy contribution in their own right.

From the outset, the author concedes that the main text under discussion, Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7, sounds like an instruction regarding women’s involvement in ritual life:

All father to son commandments – men are obligated, women are exempt.

All son to father commandments – men and women are equally obligated.

All timebound, positive commandments – men are obligated, women are exempt.

All non-timebound, positive commandments – men and women are equally obligated.[1]

Yet Shanks Alexander’s core argument is that this tannaitic passage was not designed as a rule at all.  Rather than a prescription concerning women and mitzvot, she claims that this mishnah was formulated by the early Sages as a description of different types of commandments that they identified in the course of study.  Specifically, Shanks Alexander contends that the rabbis first articulated the concept of “timebound positive commandments” while engaged in midrashic exegesis on the Book of Exodus, in an attempt to describe the features of the commandment to lay tefillin (Exodus 13:9–10; Mekhilta Bo 17).  Due to the legalistic style of Mishnah (and Tosefta), when the rabbis re-articulated their description in the context of those works, it unintentionally began to sound like a categorical, broad-based rule.

This reading is the outgrowth of a larger argument about the genre of rabbinic writing found in the Mishnah and Tosefta.  Both here and in her earlier work, Shanks Alexander argues that the seemingly-prescriptive statements that typify these tannaitic collections and appear to be the product of abstract, conceptual thought actually reflect no more than a particular manner of rehearsing legal tradition.  Thus, with regard to Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7, she writes: “The four interrelated categories in the Mishnah appear to exist because they are a theoretically sound way to conceptualize groupings of commandments… (But) the perception that the network of related categories maps out a comprehensive field of commandments, and the perception that the category of timebound, positive commandments includes all the commandments that share the traits of being ‘positive’ and ‘timebound’ do not reflect the ways the categories actually function.  Rather… both the mishnaic and tosephtan presentations highlight the fact that tradition can be organized by categories and is therefore a coherent and master-able body of information” (pp. 31-32).

Shanks Alexander is not the first to argue that women’s exemption from specific commandments predated the formulation of the mishnaic stipulation.  As she herself notes, Shmuel Safrai, Tal Ilan, Rachel Biale, and others have already made the case that Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7 was a generalization based on popular practice, which explains why there are so many exceptions to the presumed rule (as both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds are quick to point out).  But whereas the other scholars assume that the Mishnah’s focus on the timebounded-ness of the particular commandments that women did not perform reflected the Sages’ perceptions of social and cultural reality, Shanks Alexander insists that the category derived from pure academic study and had no direct bearing on contemporaneous understandings of gender.  She also positions herself in contrast to scholars such as Judith Hauptman who understand women’s exemption from timebound positive commandments as a reflection of their subordinate position within the family and a desire on the part of the rabbis to maintain that social order.

The author does not deny that the tannaitic rule had an impact on the social standing and social identities of women subsequent to its formulation; and she herself demonstrates that the latest, post-amoraic stratum of the Babylonian Talmud did assume that the mishnah was prescriptive (as did medieval scholars).  She insists, however, that the stipulation was not originally a reflection of those identities nor was it intended to shape them; and she dismisses even the idea that the prescriptive reading of the late amoraim was motivated by a concern with gender.  (Instead, she believes that it was motivated by the general proclivity of these Babylonian scholars to read the Mishnah in a prescriptive, categorical manner.)  If anything, Shanks Alexander contends, the process of formulating the rule was an act of shaping and solidifying the Rabbis’ own identity and authority as legal interpreters and arbiters of tradition.

This is a thought-provoking argument, particularly for scholars (like myself) who study the intersection of law and culture and are interested in the ways that law constructs identity and identity shapes law.  On one level, the author’s claim about the social and cultural (in)significance of women’s exemption from timebound positive commandments seems extremely narrow, as it pertains only to the earliest stage of the rule’s history.  But on another level, it highlights the ways in which the cultural meaning of a law even one or two generations after its genesis may be entirely distinct from its cultural meaning when it was initially formulated.  This, as I see it, is one of the book’s most significant contributions.

In a strange way, the third and final section of the book seems both peripheral and crucial at the same time.  In Chapter 6, Shanks Alexander digresses from her central argument to demonstrate how the Sages came to perceive the recitation of Shema and the laying of tefillin as ritualized forms of Torah study.  The ostensible purpose of this chapter is to provide some insight into why the Mishnah (Berakhot 3:3) exempts women from these two mitzvot.  To do so, it builds on the author’s claim that the tannaitic Sages were committed to an independent, early tradition that excluded women from the study of Torah (which, incidentally, is not a timebound commandment).  This tradition, she reminds the reader, is best exemplified by the Mekhilta passage identified earlier in her study as the original source of the timebound positive category of mitzvot: in that passage, the Sages deemed women exempt from the commandment to lay tefillin because of its association with the mitzvah of Torah study, which they seemed to know from elsewhere was a commandment incumbent only on men.  Which of course begs the question: how and why did the Rabbis gender the practice of Torah study?

In Chapter 7, Shanks Alexander endeavors to demonstrate that it was self-evident to the Sages that women could not be included in the form of ritual Torah study which functioned as a mechanism for cultural reproduction.  Drawing upon insights from the field of ritual studies, she suggests that the sources which exclude women from this activity refer to Torah study whose purpose was to initiate the learner into a covenantal community that comprised fathers and sons, (male) teachers and (male) disciples; whereas the few sources that depict women studying refer exclusively to instrumental Torah study, intended to convey knowledge and sharpen one’s intellect.  The distinction between ‘ritual study’ and ‘utilitarian study’ – which may sound, to some readers, strikingly similar to contemporary apologetics concerning women’s involvement in Talmud Torah – is (to my mind) a debatable distinction in the tannaitic sources.  But what Shanks Alexander achieves in demonstrating women’s longstanding exclusion from ritual Torah study and, by extension, from the commandment to lay tefillin – which, when described in the language of the Mishnah, generated the category of timebound positive commandments – is a means of explaining how the Sages managed to articulate a stipulation about women’s exemption from that group of commandments that was not actually the product of gendered assumptions involving time.

Ultimately, however, this leads Shanks Alexander to the conclusion that the exemption of women from the performance of specific mitzvot was a reflection of the Rabbis’ gendered assumptions – only that those assumptions were not associated with time but with Torah study.  And so, by the end of the book, it seems that in spite of her initial assertions to the contrary, the author has not fundamentally challenged the idea that the Mishnah’s rules concerning women, men, and ritual activity drew upon contemporaneous cultural constructs; instead, she has simply contended that generations of scholars misconstrued the Mishnah’s formulation in a manner that led them to look for the Rabbis’ understandings of gender in the wrong places.  While this may frustrate readers hoping for new insight into the relationship between law and culture, it does demonstrate, once again, the slippery nature of gender and the complexity of using idiosyncratic legal texts to draw reliable historical conclusions.


[1] This is Shanks Alexander’s translation.

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