The Talmud: Repository of Wisdom or Masculine Tool of Oppression? Maggie Anton Weighs In
Writer Maggie Anton, whose "Rashi’s Daughters” series has sold 175,000 copies, believes that studying Talmud is the most feminist thing a woman can do. “Knowledge of Talmud is the key to halacha,” she says. Anton asserts that modern Jewish law is made at a table full of Talmud scholars, and that women can have a seat at that table.
I spoke with Anton while she was staying with me in Palo Alto and lecturing on her research for her new book, Rav Hisda’s Daughter. She spoke at the JCC in Los Gatos, Congregation Beth Torah in Fremont and Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto on October 28th. I am Etz Chayim’s president this year, and, more importantly, I have a spare bedroom.
Talmud study transformed Maggie Anton from a laboratory chemist into an author, and her best-selling series on Rashi’s daughters created a new genre: Talmudic historical feminist fiction.
Anton’s fascination with women of the Talmudic era—which spans 1000 years—began 20 years ago. “I was possessed—POSESSED—to write 'Rashi’s Daughters,'” she said. “After I studied Talmud for a few years, I could not stop thinking about women during that time. They were supposed to have studied along with the men, and supposed to have worn tefillin. I had to find out.”
Anton performed years of research at the UCLA, USC, American Jewish University and Hebrew Union College libraries, and what she learned shaped the "Rashi’s Daughters" series. The primary texts show that women during the 12th century really did wear tefillin and study along with men. Anton has assembled notebooks full of information on the subject, and her research proves that at other points in history women much more actively participated in Jewish ritual and study than they do today.
Anton maintains that the Talmud is the way for Jewish women to have equality. I, however, see it as a tool that is often used to justify misogyny in certain streams of Judaism.
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As early as fourth grade, at the Kinneret Day School in The Bronx, I was taught that while the Torah was for sharing with the people, the Mishna and Gemara were created as "fences around the Torah." “Fences keep people out,” I assert to Maggie. “The men who wrote the Talmud wrote it to exclude women and regular folk.”
I have never trusted the Talmud because, to me, it is the source of many of the rules and rationalizations that help keep women at the back of the bus and away from microphones at their own awards dinners. Thus, I have long felt that the Talmud endorses misogyny. Not so, Maggie says. “The misogyny and restrictions depend on who is doing the interpretation. It contains both sides of many arguments. The Ashkenazim chose to follow the stricter opinions and the Sephardim chose the more relaxed ones.” She points out that many Jewish scholars have used their interpretations of work by scholars such as Maimonides to justify relegating women to a “supporting role.”
“Women have to keep studying Talmud, because Talmud is the basis of modern Halacha,” Anton says. “Talmud scholars in black coats sit around a table and debate how modern times relate to the Talmud, and if enough women learn enough Talmud, they can get a seat at that table.”
At a recent Bat Mitzvah lunch, I sat down to discuss Anton’s talk with a member of my congregation who is fascinated with Jewish learning and history. His daughter was sitting with us.
“What book is the Talmud?” she asked. “It’s not one book, it’s a whole shelf full, of books,” I said. The door to our library was open, and I pointed. “It’s right over there, in the library.”
And she went to see.