Taking Jewish Life In Hand: Medieval Jewish Women Circumcise, Slaughter, and Sing

Sarajevo_Haggadah_1Cheer? Laugh? Cry?

Sometimes, when it comes to the ways Jewish women have struggled to co-create their religious life, all three in quick succession. After all, for most of the last two millennia Jewish women have been subject to male authority, their access to education impeded, their roles sharply limited, their independence compromised.

And yet: During the Middle Ages, a period we generally imagine to be among the most repressive of times for women, some Jewish women had more privilege, more rights, and more power than many of our contemporaries.

Women of the earlier Middle Ages worked as mohels – at least in Germany. They functioned as ritual slaughterers. They took up  practices in part because their men were away – but also, in part, because they clearly wanted to engage with Jewish ritual and religious expression. They even had their own “synagogues,” where female cantors appear to have led them in prayer.

Rabbis legislated sharply against a number of female practices (the Maharil, for example, made no bones of the fact that he found a woman wearing tzitzit arrogant and bizarre), but the fact that the rabbis legislated against a practice demonstrates that women were eluding their control.

Isaac Halevi, rosh of the yeshiva in Worms and one of Rashi’s teachers, announced that women should not be prevented from reciting the blessing over lulav and sukkah. Clearly, women were already pronouncing the blessings. Halevi is simply sanctioning an existing practice.

This kind of trend runs all through the Middle Ages; one historian has noted that in the middle of the 12th century, Rabbeinu Tam justified his own ruling that women could pronounce blessings over time-bound positive mitzvoth by saying: “they were accustomed to do so and to fulfill them.”

Here, we can cheer – both for the women and for the male authorities that responded to their hopes to engage with ritual and practice.

Then laugh. In the 13th century, for example, the women of Ashkenaz seem to have started a veritable movement on behalf of declaring their independence, refusing to have sex with husbands and petitioning for divorce on perfectly legitimate grounds: Their husbands were repugnant to them. Payback for the popular trend of marrying off mere girls to men who were decades older?

Sometimes, the reading hurts: In the late 12th century, Jewish women began to impose increasingly severe restrictions on themselves where prayer and ritual practice were concerned. Menstruating women developed a whole set of strictures, from not touching the Torah scrolls to refusing even to recite blessings accorded women on Shabbat.

Maybe they sought to find some kind of equivalent to practices embraced by Christian women, who had embraced fasting – sometimes in extreme forms – as a sign of piety. But the effort to demonstrate religiosity through self-imposed restraints on participation in religious life had lasting repercussions. In my time as a rabbi, I’ve been asked by female congregants if they could touch the Torah while they were menstruating.

Sometimes, we read of historical moments that offer us a chance to cheer, laugh, and cry all at the same time.

Take the two grandmothers who appear to have fought over which would be allowed to be the sandek (godparent) at a grandson’s brit, a role which meant holding the child during the actual circumcision. Keep in mind, the dispute is occurring at a time when rabbis are doing their best to legislate women wholly out of the rite, refusing mothers or grandmothers the right to be present during the circumcision, much less hold the infant.

Obviously, the rabbis weren’t always winning the battle over women’s presence, or such a conversation would never have occurred. The ruling? The paternal grandmother won the right to be sandek. The grandmother who bucked the male control of the rite of circumcision won because she represented the male line.

We’re still negotiating because there is still work to be done on women’s place in Jewish life.

Thankfully, we are now negotiating beyond binaries: We must answer for rabbinic conversation and rulings which continue to affect LGBTQ+ individuals. We need to learn how to treat all Jews as equally valued members of the tribe.

When we get that right, there will be only cheers.

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