Why rab­bis dis­agree about women

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism - SI­MON ROCKER

THE STA­TUS OF WOMEN IN JEWISH TRA­DI­TION Isaac Sas­soon Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press, £45

IN AN­CIENT DAYS, the prophet­ess Hul­dah was said by one ven­er­a­ble sources to dis­pense her re­li­gious teach­ing from in­side a yeshivah. Such a thing would seem out­landishly rad­i­cal in parts of the Or­tho­dox world these days and have some of the guardians of tra­di­tion foam­ing at the beard.

Isaac Sas­soon cites Hul­dah’s ex­am­ple in a new book which will add to the grow­ing de­bate over women in Ju­daism by ques­tion­ing some of the as­sump­tions and at­ti­tudes that have led to re­stric­tions on their role in re­li­gious life.

Sas­soon, who teaches at the In­sti­tute of Tra­di­tional Ju­daism in the USA, comes with both an Or­tho­dox semichah from the Chief Rab­binate of Israel and an aca­demic back­ground which takes for granted that the To­rah is a work of com­pos­ite au­thor­ship.

He ar­gues that Deuteron­omy is far more in­clu­sive of women than Leviti­cus with its priestly no­tions of pu­rity. In his eyes, there is no mono­lithic view of women in the Bi­ble and Tal­mud but a “rich di­ver­sity” of some­times con­flict­ing views which chal­lenge what has come to be taken as re­ceived wis­dom.

He points out the dif­fer­ences among tal­mu­dic rab­bis over whether women should study the To­rah, con­trast­ing Ben Az­zai’s ap­proval to the in­fa­mous dic­tum as­cribed to Rabbi Eliezer, “Let the words of the To­rah be burned rather than handed over to women.”

Us­ing a doc­u­ment found in the Dead Sea Scroll, he traces the dis­cour­age­ment of polygamy to an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a verse in Leviti­cus, which is usu­ally more nar­rowly un­der­stood as a ban on a man mar­ry­ing a woman and her sis­ter while both are alive.

The book’s rather wordy style be­trays its ori­gins as a doc­toral the­sis but its gath­er­ing of source ma­te­rial is im­pres­sive and its anal­y­sis in­trigu­ing.

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