Italy, Early Modern
Jews have lived on the Italian peninsula uninterruptedly since antiquity. During the middle ages, the center of the Jewish population of Italy shifted from the south to the north. There, during the early-modern period, having been granted charters, local Jews, joined by refugees from Europe, including waves from French, German, and Iberian lands, provided valuable services as moneylenders and merchants. Although this period saw anti-Jewish agitation by churchmen and the establishment of ghettos, new governmental bodies to supervise the Jews, and local inquisitions, the fact that Italy was not unified provided the Jews with opportunities to leave one city-state to bring their services to another that offered greater promise for more tranquility, an incentive for their hosts to ensure their continued presence.
In early modern Italy, because French, German, Iberian, Middle Eastern, and local Italian Jewish customs were practiced in close proximity to each other, a situation was created that had a major impact on the range of attitudes towards and behaviors of Jewish women.
To write the history of women in pre-modern times is a test of the historian’s craft: Few documents by women exist; not many women are known by name; for Jews no statistical records exist which can be mined systematically; and historians have constructed misleading images, both positive and negative, often in the extreme, of the role of women. The study of Jewish women in a particular time and place offers an opportunity to reconstruct the structure of their lives and of the larger society in which they lived and to create a paradigm for the study of women in other periods and places.
Those who are happily in love do not appear before law courts and seldom write poetry. The legal and literary record preserves the paper trail of unrequited love and relationships gone awry. Based on the latter, the historian must draw conclusions about the former, that is, determine how people lived happily ever after based on the records of those who did not. Legal and literary texts may serve as a mirror of reality rather than as a clear lens, reflecting life by offering an obverse image of it, with prohibitions showing actual behaviors.
From the sources, which include rabbinic decisions, the archives of secular and religious councils, personal correspondence, religious guides and belles-lettres, it is possible to find women’s voices, to see their actions, and to describe the dynamics of their lives using the imperfect models of the life-cycle, the stages of household formation and dissolution, or the categories of public and private activities.
Following nineteenth-century historiography about Italy in general and early twentieth-century characterizations of Jewish life in particular, these sources can give the erroneous impression that there were more great Jewish women during the Renaissance than during the Middle Ages, which strengthens the mistaken notion that there was a liberating quality to the Renaissance. Yet the accomplishments of a few named women obscure the fact that most Jewish women lived lives much different from those of Christian and Jewish elites.
The sources provide a wealth of information about individual women, often unknown or unnamed, and reveal how their lives were different from the paths prescribed for them in Jewish law and custom; how, despite the limits, they enjoyed power, control, agency, and maybe authority; how they were affected by competing legal traditions and customs; and how those who tried to limit the activities of women had to invoke extra-legal considerations.
Thus, the activities of Jewish women were not results of Renaissance values, any new status in the Jewish community, or the liberation of women, but reflections of the regular give and take between traditional rabbinic texts, customs and the ongoing needs of Jewish families and communities, all of which, under certain conditions, women could serve, or defy.
Therefore, trying to reconstruct the history of Jewish women from diverse sources is like trying to learn what is happening on the other side of a wooden fence. If we stop to linger in one particular place, often our vision is blocked; however, if we move along quickly we can soon get a good picture as the images available through each crack merge in our mind. Thus to see only ghetto walls, traditional prohibitions and negative attitudes against women’s participation, indeed any Jewish participation in society, is to block from view the reality of Jewish women’s involvement and the involvement of many Jews in their communities in Italy, both inside and outside the ghettos.
The main consideration in making a match and in establishing a household was financial. Families were notorious for seeking out matches based on the wealth of the other family rather than the merits or the feelings of the people involved. There was a tremendous financial burden on both parties, especially on the woman’s side to raise a dowry, a major part of the sum necessary for establishing a family. For this reason, less affluent Jews often found it difficult to make a match. In many communities the leaders or the prominent women took it upon themselves to provide assistance in raising dowries for poor young women. For his part, the groom provided a sum ritually stipulated in the marriage contract and an additional amount that was usually his main contribution, ranging from a quarter of the dowry to an amount equal to it. These sums became debts owed by the man or his estate to the woman in the event that he divorced her, died, or went to jail.
Negative terms, such as promiscuous, clandestine, adulterous, or rebellious, especially when applied by men to women, may in fact reflect a reality over which the (male) authorities had little control except to stigmatize it in strident language. What they are actually describing are women acting on their own volition at critical stages of their lives, which included, among other things, how they selected their lovers before, during, and after marriage.
Jewish women, like their male co-religionists, were not always chaste prior to their marriage, if they ever married. Pre-marital sex, prostitution and adultery were often a result of the impediments that life in general and Jewish law and custom in particular placed in the way of (re)marriage, such as the inability to find a permanent mate, the lack of a means to secure a spouse (which raised the age of betrothal and marriage to between fourteen and eighteen for women and twenty-four to twenty-eight for men), the difficulties in getting a divorce for women who had been abandoned or beaten, the extended absence of one spouse, and the opportunities created by the propinquity of expanded households and congested living. Another sexual outlet for both Jewish men and women, despite all the legislation enacted to prevent it and the bodies established to monitor it, was relationships with Christians, including in prostitution and in marriage. Women would conceal their Jewishness—much more easily than men—convert, or extort dowries from their families to marry Christians.
Private relationships could include passionate acts of love or mere abandon, either of which could produce children—or at least intimate letters between the couple or gossip among the neighbors—sometimes leading to marriage, but not always. In the absence of witnesses it was usually easy for one or the other to change plans and to break promises. The victims of such passion were not necessarily one or the other person involved, but the families and communities whose assets, authority, and honor were squandered by impulsive youth. In cases of children born out of wedlock, the records seem to show a greater tendency to protect the honor of men and to punish the women. Women resorted to bringing the children to synagogue in order to shame the father into supporting them, or to abandoning them, or even to killing them. One man, on learning of his sister’s sexual activity, killed her to redeem the honor of the family, an act that their father justified using biblical and rabbinic texts, and another father had his son exiled to the Greek Islands for his sexual adventures.
To protect themselves from several types of complications that could arise during the course of marriage, young women or their families often required the future husband to sign a prenuptial agreement. These included provisions for him to insure that in the case of his death his brother had agreed to release her from any levirate ties—the obligation of a man to procreate with his late brother’s childless widow—to appoint her heir to all his property, to agree never to take an additional wife, or to write her a bill of divorce if he became sick or set out on a dangerous journey.
An area for significant confusion in terms of both tradition and custom involved the intentions of a man giving gifts to a woman. In some Jewish communities, based on talmudic precedent, the receipt of a gift indicated that a woman was betrothed, and severance of the relationship required legal proceedings, while in others, also based on talmudic precedent, it was simply taken as a sign of affection. Some women would receive gifts from several suitors who were wooing them at once, sometimes for their beauty or their wealth. In light of such competition, a man was reluctant to offer gifts to a woman who might spurn him for another.
Matches in Italy reflected a mixture of arrangements made by parents and spontaneity on the part of both members of the couple. Usually, fathers made the matches, but sometimes the mother or brothers did. Women were given the right to refuse, but there were cases of forced marriage. To prevent couples from acting on their own or under false pretenses, in Italy there was great concern that there would be an adequate number of witnesses for each stage of the marriage process representing the woman and her family. Italian rabbis divided on the question whether the number of witnesses to a betrothal should be the talmudic pair or ten, reflecting a clear need for more to enhance supervision of the proceedings.
Although engagement involved no religious obligations between the couple, it was of a contractual nature. In cases of broken engagement—an indication that either member of the couple could still have a change of mind—the side that broke it usually had to cover the expenses of the other side. The period of engagement could last a year or more, a further opportunity for heightened sexual, emotional, and financial ambiguity in the relations between the couple.
Life in the early-modern Italian Jewish household can be gleaned from the literature of rebuke, such as sermons, commentaries, and polemics, which contained admonitions for the behavior of Jewish women. From these literary images it is possible to discern what women were doing and not doing. As an example of this discourse, in Eshet Hayil (A Woman of Valor) by Rabbi Abraham Yagel (1553–c. 1623) compares the dutiful wife with her opposite, the other woman. He describes the wife serving her husband and doing everything that is necessary to make him happy and to preserve his honor. She is gentle, kind and calm, and views him as master and lord appointed over her by God. The husband trusts his wife, places his house and possessions in her charge, and she takes care of them and raises the children and may acquire the education necessary to fulfill these tasks. For the purpose of serving her husband, she is involved in business, which includes meeting many merchants from abroad, being careful not to leave her house, where she carries out most of her transactions. She invests in land—as if that were possible at this time in Italy, gives charity, and spins because any idleness may lead to lewdness. Her voice must never be heard in public. The other woman, who represents most women, is bound by neither fear nor love and abandons not only her husband but also God. She is noisy and rebellious in the house, ventures outside and stops doing her work. Soon, due to idleness, she is committing adultery and causing shame to her cuckold husband. From such rhetoric it seems likely that women did not always serve their husbands, preserve their honor, act gently, kindly and calmly towards them, or accept their authority. Nor did they adequately manage their houses, raise their children and pursue businesses. It was sometimes necessary for men to threaten their wives with suffering and great pain to ensure their attentive service. The key to understanding Yagel’s nuanced description of the relationship between husbands and wives is that the education, wealth and refinement attained by a woman must accrue to the honor, prestige and position of her husband. Thus, many of the aspects of economic and intellectual life that were possible areas of empowerment for women were aspects of domestic life in which Yagel tried to present women as functioning for the benefit of their husbands and families.
Indeed, rabbinic and archival documents show women, following medieval practice, regularly conducting businesses that involved financial power and serving as witnesses. Rabbis protested when women conducted business in public at fairs and at markets among Christians. Two of the most prominent Jewish businesswomen in Italy were both refugees from the Iberian peninsular who used their power for the benefit of the Jewish people: Benvenida Abravanel and Dona Gracia Nasi.
To limit the public appearance of women and their ostentatious personal practices, Jewish communities passed sumptuary laws, as did Christians. Women’s clothing and public appearance were highly charged because they had the potential to reflect positively on the status of the entire family in the community and also provided the woman an opportunity to draw attention to herself, possibly at the expense of the honor of the family.
The early modern Jewish household was not always a nuclear family. There was two-way traffic that brought people both into the family, including various relatives, boarders and servants, and out of it, including the man’s working in another city, which often involved teaching, preaching or business, or the woman’s travel for business or family matters or her flight due to disagreements.
The servants were usually life-cycle servants, that is young, single Jewish adolescents of both sexes who lived with the families and received an education from their employers, sometimes enhanced by physical chastisement, from the time they left home till they married. For some of this their families paid, but this work was an opportunity to raise the funds necessary for marriage. For women the education included all the aspects of housekeeping such as sweeping, mopping, making beds, washing dishes, kneading, rolling, baking, salting, porging (an intricate aspect of kosher slaughtering), cooking, roasting, dancing and playing music. Activities that some scholars have identified as a reflection of the liberation of Jewish women or the penetration of Renaissance culture into Jewish life, such as dancing, music and porging, appear here as routine aspects of women’s housework, necessary skills for women in cases where no men were around. When they married, servants could (re)join the same class as their employers—and parents. The marriage or pregnancy of a servant was highly inconvenient for both the servant and the employer, which was why employers tried to limit relations between servants, though employers could also function as parents in arranging for the marriages of their servants, often with other servants. As a sign of affection, employers and servants left bequests to each other.
The inclusion of servants as part of the family did not produce a sense of taboo concerning sexual liaisons with them, by either the husband or the wife. The offspring born to Jewish women servants were easily considered Jewish because Jewish men could take as many women as they wanted as lovers or as wives (as long as the women were not married). Indeed, in cases of infertility Jewish men established surrogate relationships with female servants who produced children who were raised as their own by the men and their wives. Children not fathered by their husbands born to married women created more problems, but these were often quietly passed off as those of their husbands, whether or not they had been in town recently enough to be responsible, a practice that did produce much discussion. Single women and married women whose husbands were out of town did not usually go to the ritual bath, which makes remarkable the case of a black, non-Jewish female slave who regularly went to the ritual bath so that she could have religiously correct sexual relations with her Jewish owner.
Some men, married or not, had mistresses with whom they had long-term intimate relationships that sometimes produced children. Fathers made provisions for sons, naturale o bastardo, to receive an inheritance. Other men, after ten years of marriage in which no children were produced, took a second wife. While the medieval ban of Rabbenu Gershom (ca. 960–1028) against polygamy did not cover such a circumstance and some Italian rabbis also claimed that it was no longer in force after the year 1240, it was necessary for a Jew to receive the approval of the pope (which, for a fee, was often granted) before a second marriage in Italy. Other Italian rabbis wrote vigorously against polygamy, an indication that it was an issue of concern.
The discourse about women who committed adultery reflects the tension between private emotional relationships, women’s agency, and familial and communal needs. Italian rabbis discussed the question of whether to punish a woman for adultery or not, but they found no easy or automatic answers. The reluctance of some rabbis was matched by the zeal of others for drastic punishments and both positions were justified on the basis of what seemed to be definitive precedents from rabbinic literature. Thus, while tradition seems to support two competing tendencies, the discussion was directed toward issues of Jewish survival, communal control, judicial autonomy and group honor rather than simply matters of morality. On the one hand, the arguments for not punishing an adulterous woman were accompanied by a tendency to deny that immoral acts took place and to avoid the issue altogether. The main concern, based on earlier rabbinic precedents, was that publicizing the assignation would disrupt the family and the community because it would call into question the legitimacy of the woman’s other children, perhaps even leading her to convert to Christianity and to take her children with her to avoid the authority of the rabbis and the Jewish community. Hence, the rabbis realized that their authority to enforce the law and to discipline Jews was limited. They argued for a curtailment of severe punishments in the name of communal self-protection and survival. Some went so far as to deny that Jews actually had the authority to try such cases and to execute drastic punishments and suggested instead that the community bribe the woman accused of adultery so that she would quietly change her behavior. On the other hand, rabbis argued that they had the authority to punish a woman for adultery and that it was necessary to do so in order that she change her ways, cease leading Jews astray, and serve as an example to others. They felt that if, as a result of the punishment, she chose apostasy or death for herself or her children, the rabbis would be free of any guilt and therefore should not be deterred by the consideration of any subsequent choices she might make.
Another example of the social tensions produced by the ambivalent mandate provided by tradition and custom is the levirate union. That the dead man’s brother was married already did not negate his connection with his childless sister-in-law and her need for release from him before she could marry anybody else. In other words, the levirate union took precedence over monogamy and provided an opportunity for men to blackmail their sisters-in-law for a release. In such a situation some rabbis claimed that only by his own free will and not under duress could the man grant his sister-in-law release, while others were willing to use force, another matter involving the question of the extent to which the rabbis really had the ability to impose their will. There were a few cases in which the widow and her brother-in-law, even if he were married, decided to join together rather than to seek release, a situation that may have displeased the man’s current wife. Levirate union was practiced because it was seen as a commandment from the Torah, a way to enable the transmigration of the late brother’s soul, a vehicle for the brother-in-law and the widow to share the estate and to keep it in the family, a simple way for the widow to ensure that she was cared for, and, finally, despite all their protests to the contrary, a sexual adventure on the margins of the forbidden—a chance for a man to engage not only in polygamy, but with his sister-in-law who was otherwise forbidden to him by the same Torah that commanded the levirate union.
Italian rabbinic discussion of levirate marriage also had international political ramifications during the Great Matter of Henry VIII from 1527 to 1533 (the controversy surrounding the marriages of Henry VIII [r. 1509–1547] with Catherine of Aragon [1485–1536] and eventually with Anne Boleyn [d. 1536]). Since Catherine had been married to Henry’s late brother Arthur (d. 1502), Henry’s position, based on Leviticus (20:21 and 18:16), which prohibited marriage between a man and his late brother’s widow, saw Catherine’s inability to produce an heir as punishment for violating this biblical commandment. He sought from the pope an annulment of the marriage for which he also wanted rabbinic support to validate his biblical arguments. Because there were no rabbis, or even officially sanctioned practicing Jews in England (or much of Europe), Henry sent his agents to Italy in 1530 to solicit opinions there, often for a fee. His rabbinic supporters argued that not only did the laws against incest in Leviticus prevail, and hence Henry’s marriage to Catherine should be annulled, but also that the laws of levirate marriage in Deuteronomy (25:5–10) were hardly ever followed by the Jews. Henry, who had already received a dispensation from Pope Julius II (r. 1503–1513) to marry Catherine despite these biblical prohibitions against incest, was not likely now to receive any help from Pope Clement VII (r. 1523–1534) because of the pope’s dependence on Charles V (r. 1519–1558), the Holy Roman Emperor and Catherine’s nephew; she herself was the youngest daughter of Queen Isabella (1451–1504) and King Ferdinand (1452–1516) of Spain. On the other side, some rabbis who would benefit greatly from their support of the pope argued in favor of the levirate provisions of Deuteronomy, views favoring the pope and the emperor against annulling Henry’s marriage. These rabbis produced evidence of actual Jewish cases of levirate unions in Italy as part of their participation in international diplomacy involving the pope, the emperor, the king of England, and their respective agents and spies, each of whom followed rabbinic deliberations on questions of levirate marriage with great interest. Ironically, the papal position opposing Henry was based on a tacit acceptance of polygyny and levirate marriage, which the Church usually opposed. The Jewish positions were not based on any appreciation for the status of Jewish women but on needs of the forces aligned around the political predicament of Catherine of Aragon, paradoxically advancing the family interests of Ferdinand and Isabella, the monarchs who had instituted the Inquisition and expelled the Jews from Spain. It is these circumstances that obscure the significance of levirate marriage in the Jewish community but which propelled it for a short while to the international stage and left a residue of precedents, disconnected from their historical origins, in rabbinic literature for future generations.
To return to the more humble confines of the Jewish household, one method used in especially difficult births was to bring a Torah scroll into the birthing room for the woman to hold as if it were an amulet. Some rabbis, however, condemned using a Torah in this way because they did not believe that it was proper to derive material benefit from the Torah by using it for theurgical purposes, they did not want a Torah placed in the bosom of a woman whom they saw as a major source of impurity, they did not want women to have control over such matters, they questioned whether the word of women could be trusted when they testified that the Torah scroll helped them, and they were not sure that such use of a Torah actually saved lives. As in other matters involving tenuous rabbinic authority, it was suggested that the rabbis not raise objections so that the women would not be in a position of defying them. Alternative suggestions included lighting a candle for the woman to ease her discomfort or to have a group of ten men, separated from her by a divider, pray with the Torah in her room. To meet women’s medical needs in matters such as birth control, abortion, conception, birth and lactation, women were also included in the formularies found in other Italian Hebrew books, including magic books.
Since a woman could not initiate divorce, she could try to have the rabbis force her husband to grant her a divorce either by their imposing excommunication or by a brutal beating. The legal grounds for forcing a divorce on a man were always extremely limited and usually involved a physically intolerant defect that emerged after the marriage and that interfered with sexual relations. As in so many other matters, rabbis were reluctant to use force because they often did not have the authority or the power to do so or they were afraid of the destabilizing effects of such an action. Under such circumstances women were usually forced to trade financial concessions in exchange for their freedom.
The prospect of raising the dowry in case of divorce provided a strong incentive for the man to remain in the marriage, but the possibility of his wife obtaining such a sum as part of a divorce settlement did not always cause her to reciprocate. If, however, it could be shown that she was the cause of the break up, because of adultery or rebellion, she could lose her right to some or all of the money, a reason that such charges against a spouse might have to be seen as negotiating strategies rather than as historical facts.
In marital controversies, Jewish women turned to the secular authorities and even Church officials for help extricating themselves from difficult marriages. It is also not unusual to find reports of conjugal strife in which the women gained the advantage, left home, or were able to force their husbands out of the house. If, however, a woman fled her home, even if her husband was violent, she could be accused of rebellion or adultery and lose all financial entitlements.
One charge leveled by women against their husbands was that the men were impotent, incapable of fulfilling their obligations to satisfy them or to produce offspring. The rabbis were reluctant to grant the women an immediate divorce, probably because their ability to do so was limited, but they rationalized their inaction by expressing the concern that women would make such charges only because they had developed an attraction to another man. Some rabbis required that the women stay with their husbands for ten years and only then if no offspring were produced might divorce be a possibility. Attempts were also made to blame the men’s impotence on the women, either because of the nature of their anatomy or their use of magic.
There are a few discussions of wife-beating in Italian rabbinic literature, archival material and literary texts; these, however, are no indication of how widespread incidents of physical abuse actually were. A look at some of the limited evidence shows the relationship between women’s volition and men’s weakness and violence. Despite restrictive legislation and rhetoric, the impression emerges that women pursued opportunities in excess of what husbands wanted, did not accept their position, and often vigorously asserted their independence in domestic, sexual or religious matters, cursing, committing adultery, withholding sex, converting, or simply disobeying or disagreeing. It seems men resorted to violence not when they were strong, but when they were weak, when they had no other way of influencing their wives or asserting their authority. In conformity with views in earlier rabbinic literature and in Catholic texts, Italian rabbis thus made a distinction between justified and unjustified violence against one’s wife. Thus physical chastisement, not necessarily cruelty, was considered a necessary component in a man’s treatment of his wife. Italian rabbis could find precedents to support forcing a violent man to divorce his wife and to give her the financial benefits to which she was entitled, usually based on rulings by rabbis from Islamic countries—where Jewish women could turn to secular courts for divorces, while in Italy gentile courts were rarely willing to act on them, reflecting Christian opposition to any divorce and autonomy by Jews. The rabbis justified their reluctance to act by expressing concern that forced divorce was not valid and future children would be precluded from marrying other Jews, that women were making such charges because they took a fancy to other men and that the abuse, such as charges of marital rape during menstruation, could not be verified by reliable witnesses. So, like their Catholic neighbors, the rabbis of Italy preferred to reconcile the couple; if that failed, to impose separation, and only in extreme circumstances to consider a forced divorce. The literary texts, more than the rabbinic materials, include men fantasizing about killing their wives or mutilating them. In the archival materials available, uxoricide is not a fantasy but a real part of Italian Jewish life.
Extortion by her brother-in-law was only part of the trauma a woman experienced when she lost her husband. Because of a statement in the Zohar, which said that when a woman attended a funeral everybody there was at risk from attack by the angel of death, there were places where women were not allowed into the cemeteries to attend funerals, including those of their own husbands.
A woman did retain the right to serve as a guardian of her children after her husband’s death, but there was enough of a basis in tradition for this right to be challenged, especially if she remarried. Often she would have to share this function with others.
The question of a pregnant or nursing widow or divorcée remarrying before the child was two years old is part of the larger framework of the various competing interests in a family, including the mother, the child, the father, his extended family, and the community. The traditional assumption was that the rivalry between a husband who is not the father and the child may, in the case of a pregnant woman, endanger the child during sex, spoil the mother’s milk, cause the child to suffer with a wet nurse, or even provoke the mother to kill the child so that she could remarry. On the other hand, passing up the opportunity to remarry for two years could diminish the mother’s chances of ever remarrying. Some women were concerned that nursing might diminish the attractiveness of their breasts. Women were therefore counseled by relatives not to start nursing on the assumption that they would not have to continue and were thus free to remarry. Based on rabbinic and kabbalistic considerations, for a woman to remarry and to seek sexual satisfaction was seen as an affront to the honor of her late husband and his family.
According to Jewish law, when a man died his wife did not inherit his possessions but only what was due her from her dowry and ketubbah. Often the man’s family was reluctant to part with them. Sometimes the widow would receive sustenance from them instead of a cash payment. Therefore it was essential to the woman’s well-being to retrieve her marriage portions. To recover everything a widow might turn to the courts, Jewish or secular, but in doing so (even if it were not awarded) she ran the risk of losing anything to which she might have been entitled and even getting excommunicated. Some rabbis opposed these limits placed on women’s access to justice, at least in Jewish courts.
One way that Jewish women not only inherited regularly but also became the executrixes of estates was when their husbands or other relatives made their wills with a Christian notary. Questions about the validity of such testaments were addressed by rabbis and by Christian legal scholars. Jewish widows or single women, therefore, had assets—sometimes significant—to dispose of upon their deaths. Among such testaments, Jewish women left more testaments than did Jewish men, a phenomenon found also among Christian women, probably because more men than women were willing to rely upon the traditional patrilineal lines of succession. When women made their testaments they made choices that reflected their relationships with a broad network of relatives and others, a preference for one relative over another or for one child among many, a pattern based on affection rather than law, a freedom also enjoyed by Christian women. Thus, the testaments constituted a chance for public reckonings of perceived wrongs, such as taking a second wife or abuse, or for especially solicitous attention, often during times of illness. With those around them aware of their ability to make such choices, the power of women was enhanced during their lifetime. These testaments serve as maps of community and family relationships. They show that some men did have two wives, that servants served as surrogates, and that blacks worked in Jewish homes. The goods of women consisted of their dowries, other property they brought into the marriage, or inheritances from their relatives, all of which reverted to them and which they were able to dispose of as they wished. Women made donations to the poor, to hospitals, confraternities and synagogues. They also kept some funds aside to provide for their own burial, usually near relatives, often their husbands.
Dictating in a mixture of Italian, Hebrew, German, Portuguese and Spanish, the women testatrices had neither advanced writing ability nor any evidence of book ownership, except of prayer books. When books did appear in the testaments they were male assets, raising the question of the extent to which women were involved in intellectual, poetical, musical or other cultural activities.
Males tried to silence women who studied, wrote, sang, danced or prayed. Women, however, did study, write, sing, dance and pray.
Rabbinic opponents of women’s literacy were motivated, in part, by the traditional concerns of ensuring their domestic role, feminine qualities, and sexual purity, and by prejudices about the simplemindedness of women. Nevertheless, they saw some literacy as necessary in order for women to conduct religious life, to run the household, to supervise the family business, to raise Jewish children and to adorn their husband’s honor. Evidence shows that there were Jewish girls in Italy who did attain a basic level of literacy. Moreover, some aristocratic Jewish women, aided by private tutors or parental teaching at home, did attain advanced skills in Italian, including poetry, rhetoric and history as they cited texts from authors as diverse as Boethius, Terence, Ovid, Cicero, Petrarch, and Dante; and even in Hebrew, including Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Jewish law, Maimonides and Kabbalah. A few, sometimes identified as widows, taught; others, in association with their husbands at home, worked as scribes and in the publishing industry; and a few were published authors: Devorah Ascarelli, Sara Copia Sullam, and Rachel Morpurgo.
Further possible evidence of the literacy of Jewish women and of their own words may be preserved in Hebrew letters written by them, to them and about them, usually saved by teachers who specialized in Hebrew composition. These letters, however, show signs of having been dictated to a male amanuensis. Moreover, these letters could have constituted classroom drills dictated by the teachers for their class, or imaginary exercises written by students for their Hebrew teachers. Even if they were imaginary exercises, they may reflect the social reality of the teachers or the students who invented them.
In one of the above mentioned Hebrew letters, a young girl wrote to her father to ask for music lessons. The most prominent Jewish woman in music in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was Madame Europe, who worked with her brother, Salamone Rossi (c. 1571–c. 1630), as a salaried musician in the court of Mantua. Other Jewish women musicians included Madonna Bellina, a composer, singer and musician in Venice; Judith Trabotto, wife of the rabbi Nathaniel Trabotto, a singer; and Rachel, a singer of Venice.
Although an edict was passed that men should not dance with married women except on Purim, this indicates that Jewish women danced and illustrations show men and women dancing together.
Women sat in their own section of the synagogue, usually in the balcony. When they quarreled about their seats, seating assignments had to be issued which represented a hierarchical structure for the older, more educated women to lead the others. Women who sat at the head of the first several benches were designated as rabbanit—a title of distinction found in classical rabbinic literature for women who participated in rabbinic discussions—with the addition of their husbands’ names or their own. Next came women with the title of marat, madam, then those with the designation almanat, indicating that she was a widow, and finally the women who often sat at the far end of the bench, probably the younger women, had the title kallat, the bride or betrothed. The back rows were headed by women who had the title marat, but not rabbanit. One woman had the title of shamashit, the female sexton. Elsewhere, one woman had the masculine job title of sheliah zibbur, representative of the community, and she functioned as did men who led the service.
The segregation of women in the balcony of the synagogue did not mean that they silently accepted their position. Indeed, they raised their voices in protest against unspecified offenses. Sitting together they also joined together to curse the men who had done them wrong and asked for vengeance against them. This practice, illustrating to the rabbis the connection between women’s learning and religiosity and their disobedience to their husbands, was denounced by those who called for men to rule over their wives, apparently something that they had to be reminded to do.
Reflecting a positive response to women’s complaints, two sixteenth-century manuscript Hebrew prayer books began with a revised morning blessing which instead of the traditional “has not made me a woman” reads “has made me a woman and not a man.” In the face of the newly revised blessing, one rabbi and kabbalist felt the need to defend the traditional formula, arguing that men should rejoice that they are not connected with servitude, the frivolity of women and impure thoughts.
Though women were denied direct access to the Torah during the service in Italy, they made the binders with which the Torah scrolls were wrapped. The Hebrew inscriptions on them, lavishly embroidered by women, always identified them in relation with a man—husband, father or even grandfather.
Two documents mention women in Italy praying while wearing tefillin (phylacteries), the traditional ritual leather straps on their arm and head usually associated with male religious practice. One describes—as a matter of fact—two women who wore them, like Michal, King David’s wife, who, according to rabbinic tradition, wore tefillin. The other protests against women who wore tefillin and noted that Michal was an exception because she was the daughter and the wife of kings.
The widespread use of Hebrew by women is evidenced by the existence of many manuscript collections of private Hebrew prayers specifically designed for Jewish women in Italy, which constitute evidence of the widespread use of Hebrew in private rituals by women. The instructions before each prayer, however, are in Italian, indicating that the women may have read but not understood Hebrew. These prayers relate to the rituals associated with women, especially baking Sabbath bread, lighting Sabbath candles, immersing in the ritual bath after menstruation, and marking transitions through the critical stages of pregnancy from conception to returning to synagogue after the child was born. In addition, translations of the worship service were made in Judeo-Italian, for the benefit of both women and men who did not understand Hebrew. The rituals specifically associated with women were also treated extensively in special tractates circulated in Judeo-Italian, Yiddish or Italian. Some vernacular ritual manuals also provide illustrations of popular practices by women.
In a fascinating record of the critique of women assuming activities supposed to be confined to males in early-modern Italian Jewish spirituality, Yagel explicitly singled out for rebuke women involved in religious, mostly ascetic, practices such as daily prayer, fasting, placing ashes on their heads, wearing sackcloth and denying themselves enjoyment of even the smallest earthly matters, especially pleasure. Even though he admitted that the intentions of these women were good and holy, these women had not fulfilled their obligations to God because their single-minded devotion to God is a dereliction of their duties to their husbands and their homes. A man will turn against his wife and hate her for taking such a course.
Jewish men, therefore, viewed the religious and cultural accomplishments of the women in their families as they viewed their clothing. And as they tried to control women’s manner of dress with sumptuary laws, they also tried to control their religious and cultural accomplishments. Such endeavors were highly charged because they could either reflect favorably on the status of the entire family in the community or provide a woman with ideas or opportunities that could hurt the honor of the family. The Jewish community was in the same dilemma as Catholic society in Italy: while cultural pursuits would draw women away from their domestic responsibilities, at the same time women’s lack of education, especially illiteracy in Italian but also in more advanced subjects, would be counterproductive for the family and the community.
The study of women in early-modern Italian Jewish history leads to a new sense of the nature of Jewish society itself at this time. One of the key features of Jewish society that requires a significant modification is rabbinic authority.
Italian rabbis often explicitly made their decisions in the spirit of the medieval Jewish view that later rabbinic authorities were more binding than earlier ones. Thus, it cannot be taken for granted that the Bible and the Talmud were the ultimate arbiters of Jewish experience. Rather, these texts were mediated by conflicting rabbinic views and Jewish customs. The Italian rabbis regularly drew on the principle that custom takes precedence over law to ratify what had become common practice among the Jews of their day. Most important was the fact that rabbinic authority was tentative. Limited by forces both within and outside the Jewish community the rabbis could make threats that they could not keep or refrain from making them in order to save face. Either way, they were weak and ultimately it must be concluded that Jewish women were not protected by the rabbis in Italy. It is impossible to suggest that with their subordinate position as defined by the rabbis at least came a sense of stability, warmth or security. As she moved through each stage of her life—as a vulnerable child, a young woman starting a marriage and a family, a mother in the throes of birth, a part of a couple with a fertility problem, a married woman whose husband had taken up with another woman, a wife whose husband abused her, or a divorcée or a widow, the Jewish woman was at risk and her success was a result of her ability to take care of herself by using the system to her best advantage.
Therefore, the study of Jewish women in this period of history, as indeed in most others, leads to the conclusion that the day-to-day life of a Jewish woman was determined by an ever-fluid balance of what others wanted her to do, what they were afraid of her doing, and what she wanted to do. This dynamic, which established what each woman was able to do, cannot be characterized as the position of the Jewish woman. There was neither a monolithic position of Jewish women, nor did any woman (or any man for that matter) live solely by the tenets of the religion. The heroic aspect of the history was the daily struggle mounted by the women whose very existence posed a challenge and a threat as well as was a necessity to the men in their lives.
In conclusion, texts and customs, Jewish or other, influence social behavior without entirely dictating it. Despite their embeddedness in Jewish tradition and law, Italian Jews, like Jews of so many countries, were very much involved in local Christian custom and law, especially when these served their needs better than Jewish options. Individuals, especially women, made decisions and followed strategies that were based on personal needs and affection rather than always on the dictates of law.
One of the implications of these findings is that it is difficult to speak about a unified position of women in Jewish history, or even women in history in general. The victimization of women, legislation against them, and patriarchal, misogynistic and sexist attitudes relate to the behavior and attitudes of men, not the agency, initiative, voice or power of women.
An analogy could be made between Jewish life and the life of Jewish women. Just as Jewish history was always more than the shortest distance between two massacres and Jewish life was more than the sum total of all the restrictions imposed on the Jews, so too a study of the life of Jewish women reveals that they created many more opportunities than the law allowed for.
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