Review of Isaac Sassoon, The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 232 pp. $28.99

By Emmanuel Bloch

Over the last several years, the Jewish academic world has certainly not suffered from any paucity of books on the status of women in the Jewish Faith. Yet Isaac Sassoon’s “The Status of Women in the Jewish Tradition” deserves special mention, for it manages to offer a fresh look on some already much-discussed issues. Before the interested reader flips open the book cover, a few caveats are in order.

For one, the title is somewhat misleading: it promises more than it delivers, and perhaps more than any single work could possibly treat on this most intricate and far-reaching of topics. But in practice, Sassoon limits the scope of his work in two essential ways. First, in terms of content, the book tackles three main themes only: the institution of monogamy, the practice of the commandments, and the question of the intrinsic equality of women and men. These are admittedly weighty issues, but even taken together they can hardly be understood as a comprehensive treatment of the place of women in Judaism. Second, in terms of chronology, Sassoon limits his inquiry to an analysis of biblical, talmudic, and (occasionally) sectarian law; medieval, pre-modern, and modern rabbinic authorities are rarely mentioned, except in a few instances where Sassoon deems them to truly capture the original intent of the talmudic text. In other words, this is a book that uncovers ancient (and often long-forgotten) traditions about the place of women in Judaism at the religion’s various developmental stages, and in differing schools of thought, but whose aim is explicitly not to address traditions as they are currently practiced.

Moreover, there is a certain amount of ambiguity regarding the book’s true goals. While the author’s rigorous academic methodology, and his erudite mastery of a wealth of material ranging from the verses of Tanakh to contemporary biblical and rabbinic research, cannot be doubted, sentences like “our commitment to scholarship is unwavering, even though the hoped-for prize lies beyond the findings themselves” (Preface, p. viii) seem to suggest that one of the book’s genuine ambitions is to actually influence, in one way or another, current halakhic practice. If that is correct, though, one would have wished for this point to be made more explicitly, as it raises a whole cluster of related complexities that the book regrettably fails to deal with. In particular, halakha, like any other legal system, cannot trace its steps back to an earlier historical situation and opt to tread this time the road not taken; all legal developments since the canonization of the Bible or the closing of the Talmud cannot be simply sidestepped. Nor will the mere rediscovery of forgotten opinions that may be more congenial to gender equality, or the accumulation of historical evidence regarding the true meaning of a biblical or talmudic statement, suffice in and of themselves to modify accepted legal positions. This issue is not a new one, and has been duly noted in recent years by many writers. One solution offered by a number of feminist thinkers has been to advocate for the adoption of a restorative (or revisionist) approach to Jewish law; and the debate has been quite animated in this respect, between those of a more sociological bent and those who choose more historical or theological tracks.[1] One would have wished for Sassoon to acknowledge this question of legality and tackle it upfront.

Be that as it may, Sassoon’s book provides its readers with some important insights. For instance, in Part One, Sassoon draws our attention to the fact that monogamy was a reality a thousand years before Rabbeinu Gershom’s medieval ban on polygamy, practiced by the community of faithful who embraced the Damascus Covenant at Qumran, and who considered intercourse with more than one wife to be nothing more than forbidden fornication. On Sassoon’s account, this is the most plausible reading of Leviticus 18:18, which prohibits the union with “a woman and her sister,” this last word being now understood by Sassoon as referring not only to a member of the family but to any other foreign woman. If this interpretation has merits, it implies that the sacerdotal school of thought (the so-called “P” source of the Pentateuch), to which Leviticus 18:18 is generally ascribed, actually desired to legislate polygamy out of the Bible.

The second part of the book deals with the question of the mitsvot, and in this respect as well Sassoon deconstructs a score of preconceived ideas, and demonstrates that the Jewish tradition displays a remarkable lack of agreement regarding women’s rights to participate in the performance of the commandments. This diversity is reflected, for instance, in a number of minority opinions pertaining to the possibility, or sometimes even the obligation, of Torah learning for women – the spectrum ranges from the most inclusive, which advocated for the right of all women to learn Torah, to the most exclusive, which viewed Torah education for women as equivalent to teaching them salacity (tiflut), with the bulk of rabbinical opinions falling somewhere between these two extremes.

Finally, the third and last part of the book tackles the question of the intrinsic equality of men and women. In that respect, one of the loci classici is the famous Mishna from Horayot 3:7, which is understood, both by authoritative expounders of halakha[2] and by contemporary scholars, to prioritize saving a male over a female in case both happen to be drowning in a river at the same time. To Sassoon, this position is nothing less than a travesty of talmudic thought, and he harnesses considerable evidence in favor of what he describes as the Sages’ egalitarian approach to the value of human life. In Sassoon’s view, the Mishna’s ruling touches on the distribution of food to needy people and can be relatively innocuously understood as reflecting a certain patriarchal etiquette, but its goal is not to arbitrate over matters of life and death. And while the first explanation reflects the original intent of the talmudic text and is mirrored in the writings of medieval commentators like Maimonides, the second explanation results from a forced harmonization between the Mishna and another text, which we see in the 16th century only.

One of Sassoon’s most valuable observations is that the foundational texts of Judaism (the Bible, the Talmud) are far from monolithic, and that by refraining from the ever-present temptation to harmonize different sources, he is able to uncover a much more diverse and variegated picture of the place of gender in Judaism. Still, Sassoon occasionally fails to convince on that score. That is the case when he asserts, for instance, that the famous last Mishna of Tractate Makkot[3] showers all of Israel, men and women indiscriminately, with the same opportunities to accomplish God’s will. The text Sassoon quotes to support his thesis here is clearly of an aggadic nature. Aggadot have been traditionally denied any legal stature on two main accounts: first, their fluid nature lacks the precision that one expects to find in legal norms;[4] and second, halakha itself was generally conceived as a formalist and positivist legal system. Now, it is true that recent scholarship has developed new avenues of rethinking the relationship between halakha and aggada, as it is now suggested, for instance, that aggadot be understood as supplying legal principles, organizing concepts, and values, around which the legal norms are formulated.[5]  Yet even this recent reappraisal and reappropriation of aggada’s legal content does not justify taking what is essentially a homiletic text and treating it as a source of independent legal rights and obligations. And, taken at face value, Sassoon’s logic would seem here to obliterate not only all differences between men and women, but also between priests and non-priests, slaves and free men, minors and adults – which is clearly an untenable position.

In conclusion, despite its limitations in scope and some minor defects, “The Status of Women in the Jewish Tradition” makes for a very enjoyable and enriching reading experience.

[1] For a recent survey of the different options and a critical evaluation of their respective strengths and weaknesses, see the by-now classical book of Tamar Ross, Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press 2004), chaps. 6 and 7.

[2] See, for instance, the position of the Shulhan Arukh,  Yoreh De‘ah 252:8; see Rema and Taz §6.

[3] “R. Hananiah son of Aqashia said, “The Holy One blessed be He wanted to let Israel gain merit; therefore He gave them Torah and mitsvot in abundance (…)” (p. 39).

[4] See for instance the comments of R.  Hai Gaon, Otsar ha-Geonim (Haifa, 1928-1943), Hagigah paragraph 67, pp. 59-60.

[5] For more on this, see Suzanne Last Stone, “On the Interplay of Rules, ‘Cases’, and Concepts in Rabbinic Legal Literature: Another Look at the Aggadot on Honi the Circle-Drawer,” Diné Israel 24 (2007): 125-155.


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