Monday, July 16, 2007

Images of Women in Jewish Mythology

Despite the clearly patriarchal nature of traditional Jewish culture, both the Bible and Jewish tradition provides a wide range of images of women: wives, mothers, daughters, harlots, warriors, prophets, leaders, entrepreneurs, witches, seductresses, and sages. In the Bible women personify both wisdom and witchcraft. While women are often portrayed as especially devious, indirect, and manipulative, that quality is often used for godly purposes:

[In an inversion of traditional Eve typology, womanhood slays the serpent with the Word. Book plate by Ephraim Moses (E.M.) Lilien]

Rebecca in Genesis, Yael in Judges 4, the Wise Woman of Tokea in I Samuel, and Bathsheva in II Samuel all being signal examples. They could also be transgressors of accepted sexual norms for women and still be portrayed as valorous or virtuous, as exemplified by Rahab (Joshua 3) and Tamar (Gen. 38).

The Bible only tangentially gives us a sense of the status and role of women in Israelite society, and at times these portrayals are “idealized” in that they reflect the preference of the male authors of the Bible as to how women “ought” to behave rather then the reality of how they did behave, but as a whole, the Bible provides a remarkable varied portrayal of women. It is clear, for example, that women moved in most spheres of life with relatively little disability or male disapproval: the public square as well as the private home, in battlefields, palaces, and even in sacred precincts. Limits on women’s interaction with male society seem defined primarily by issues of ritual purity, and, to a lesser extent, class.

However, the Biblical tendency for women to used as literary types rather than describe them in “realistic” terms is exemplified by the book of Zechariah. Women appear only three times in Zechariah, in chapter five as personifications of moral and spiritual attributes, in chapter 12 as mourners, and in chapter 13 as parents. In each case, they are used in a highly figurative manner (as “wickness,” angels, a symbols of national mourning, and as symbols of societal transformation) that is would be difficult to extract a great deal of sociological information about Zechariah’s attitude toward the actual women who lived in his time and his society. The evidence of chapter 12, that women mourn separately from men is suggestive, but the deployment of this image is so stylizes it is impossible to say if that represented actual practice in the post-exilic community.

Because of the monthly cycle of menstruation and the issues that creates in the priestly system of purity, women are at times considered a potential source for tamei, ritual uncleaness. At least one extreme sectarian Jewish group believed the ritual impurity of women was such that women should not be allowed permanent residence in Jerusalem, lest their presence undermine the holiness of the Temple (Temple Scroll).

Rabbinic literature sharpens many of the themes and issues concerning women that are raised in the Bible. On the one hand, the Talmud identifies seven Biblical women upon whom “the Holy Spirit rested” – i.e., they were prophets: Sara, Miriam, Deborah, Channah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther. According to the Zohar there are four women who have been translated living into heaven and that each of them governs one of the seven heavenly palaces (other sources speak of six palaces for women). There the souls of righteous women are rewarded. The women are Yocheved, the mother of Moses, Miriam, his sister, and the prophetesses Serach bat Asher and Deborah. Other versions of this list of ascendant women include Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, Moses’ adoptive mother (Seder Gan Eden; Zohar III: 167a-b; Midrash Yashar).

On the other hand, women are also a source of social instability and discord among men because of male lust – the first murder, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer claims, was actually a fight over Abel’s twin sister (21). It is also the case that some Sages show a marked misogyny (Gen. R. 18:2). As a result, Jewish law spends a great deal of time and thought trying to “regulate” women and especially their interactions with men.

Still, there is ample documentation outside the “normative” religious literature that shows just how varied and important the lives of Jewish women were in their societies. Writings such as those by Eleazer of Worms eulogizing the murdered women of his family and documents found in the Cairo Geniza show women as savvy business people, litigants in the legal system, as informal communal functionaries, and even in roles of religious leadership. For example, there is ample evidence that Jewish women have functioned as folk healers throughout history. Generally excluded from the scholarly circles that produced rabbis, physicians, and mystics in the learned tradition, women nevertheless could be religious virtuosos in their own right; avid practitioners of folk healings, midwifery, divination, clairvoyance, visionary prophecy, and amulet making (Sefer Chasidim; Sefer ha-Hezyonot).

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


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