Medieval Hebrew Literature: Portrayal of Women
The only medieval Hebrew poem attributed to a female author is a young wife’s sad recollection of her husband’s departure, imploring him not to forget her and their child. This poem, dating from the latter part of the tenth century, survived only thanks to the reputation of the author’s more famous husband, Dunash ben Labrat, a pioneer of the Jewish Golden Age in Muslim Spain (Fleischer 1984, 189–202; Kaufman et al 1999, 62–63). If attribution is accurate, Dunash’s wife is not only the first identifiable woman-poet in the Hebrew language since the biblical poets Miriam and Deborah, but also the only one for centuries to come. For the next name, Merecina of Gerona (Catalonia), from whom we have another single Hebrew poem, and about whom too nothing is known, we will have to wait another four and a half centuries (Kaufman, 64–65). Arabic literary historians mention also Qasm?na, a Jewish poet in the Arabic language. While Jewish sources keep silent about her, the Arabic sources tell us that her father (possibly Rabbi Samuel ha-Nagid [Ibn Naghrela], the eleventh century poet and statesman from Granada) taught her how to make verses in Arabic (Bellamy 1983, 423–424).
The absence of Jewish/Hebrew women poets is manifest especially when compared to the relatively significant number of medieval non-Jewish women writers. In Christian Europe, however outnumbered by men and however excluded from the canon, women—troubadours, nuns, mystics, nobles—did write their perceptions of life and death and of love, sacred and profane. Feminist research in recent decades has rediscovered, reread, and reintegrated these women into the canon, thus correcting, to an extent, the historical imbalance (Dinshaw and Wallace 2003). Even more pertinent to our context are the scores of Arabic women poets, Eastern and Andalusian; princesses, courtesans and slave-girls; fighters, mystics, and musicians, whose names, and sometimes also their texts, have been preserved, or rediscovered (Nichols 1979, 114–117).
With the dim hope of discovering more medieval female authors writing in Hebrew, the only path left for the Hebrew medievalist-feminist is treating issues of women and gender via the male-authored texts. Historians may try to reconstruct the actual life-experiences (Grossman 2001; Baskin 1991, 94–103; Assis 1988, 25–59) and the authentic voices (Kraemer 1995, 161–182) of real women captured in male-authored documents. The task of feminist literary critics, for their part, is to account for the ideological and symbolical functions designated to women in the male literary imagination; to map the positions of female figures and the positioning of their voices within the patterns of male discourse; to explore the artistic strategies of women’s presence/absence and the procedures of their signification. Feminist criticism asks how does literature fictionalize social practices, and, how, in turn, does it reflect its invented fictions back onto the real world (Rosen 1988, 67–88; Rosen 2003).
Stereotypes of women, “good” and “bad,” inhabit the width and length of the medieval Hebrew canon (Dishon 1986, 3–15; Dishon 1994, 35–50; Navas 1994, 9–16; Huss 2002). The love poetry cultivated during the Golden Age in Muslim Spain (950–1150) seems to glorify and idealize women. Following the themes of Arabic poetry, the rhetorically brilliant love poems written by poets like Samuel ha-Nagid, Ibn Gabirol, Moses Ibn Ezra and Judah ha-Levi, posit a lofty and dazzlingly pretty female figure in their midst. The idealized lady (similar to that of the troubadours’) is exalted but muted, aloof but lethal, tempting but unyielding. She is devoid of personality and speech. Her cruelty and beauty, and the poet’s passion and pain dominate the poetic descriptions. The poet pleads for her response and her cooperation in lovemaking. The more the lady remains steadfast in her refusal, the more does the poet’s love grow and his pen flow. The male discourse of love is generated not so much by sheer love to the lady as by the poet’s drive to please a courtly male audience which shares his own aesthetic “courtly” values.
While mainstream critics have read these poems as manifesting Jewish “hedonism” “universality,” and “normal sexuality,” a feminist reading will reveal an unbalanced power relationship. Although the male speaker describes himself as weak, inferior and fearful vis-a-vis his lady, the power of language and description is in his hands. Her hair is a bundle of snakes; her eyes shoot arrows; her breasts are described as apples growing on a “heart of stone,” threatening like sharp spears, “drinking my blood” (Judah ha-Levi). Her eyes “tear prey like lions, [...] suck and sip my heart’s blood” (Diwan Judah ha-Levi 2:6). The female “beloved” is subjected to the power of the male “gaze” and male rhetoric. The lady’s almost vampire aspect discloses misogynistic traits.
Contrary to this image of the muted lady in the male love lyric, are the passionate voices of the singing maidens appearing at the ending couplets (called kharja) of poems of the muwashshah type (Rosen 1985; Rosen 2000, 165–89). The kharjas are often put in mouths of women, and are typically in the vernacular Arabic or in the Romance. As hypothesized by some scholars these kharjas represent and preserve (or, alternatively, counterfeit), an oral poetic tradition of old songs sung by Iberian women in a Romance dialect. The young women play an active role in the love relationship. They daringly suggest secret rendezvous, despite spies and slanderers. They send messengers, consult fortune-tellers, or confess their feelings to mothers and girlfriends. Many of these small songs are complaints about departure and desertion. The women coquettishly offer their bodies to their sweethearts, instructing them in lovemaking, or bashfully stop an admirer’s too bold advances (as in the following Romance kharja concluding a muwashshah by Judah ha-Levi: “Don’t touch me, my love;/I don’t want him who hurts me./My breast is sensitive./Stop it, I refuse all [suitors]” Diwan Judah ha-Levi, 2:3).
Another aspect of the beloved woman appears in wedding-songs, a genre reflecting patriarchal imagination at its most favorable position toward woman. While the love lyric exalts extramarital love with its attractions and perils, the wedding poems depict married love as a prelapsarian paradise, devoid of danger and sin. The ideal bride is as dazzling as the poets’ lady, but not as dangerous. The groom is encouraged (by the poet, or by the bride herself) to ignore the harmless serpents that decorate her face and to enjoy the fruit that grows in her delightful garden/body. Not only does the bride yield herself to the man’s pleasure, moreover, it is she who entices the groom with a promise for future harmony and joy: “To you alone I will give my love/And you will lie between my breasts,” Diwan Judah ha-Levi, 2: 26). The bride is erotic yet pure and obedient, virgin yet a promise of future procreation. Her sexuality is sanctioned by God and men, as Eros is integrated within the frame of family and society.
When the bride becomes a wife, Eros fades away and woman’s base nature is said to reveal itself fully blown. And if the wife does appear as good and obedient, it is only to mask her greed and treachery. In marriage the wife is required to repress her feelings, opinions, appetites, desires, likes and dislikes. She will earn the title of “the princess of the house” only if she agrees to be her husband’s servile maid. A wife should be disciplined and domesticated. Mothers, no less than fathers, were agents of the patriarchal construction of wifehood. The following voice is that of a mother: “Beware of whatever makes your husband angry. Do not express your own anger […]. Speak softly to him to abate his anger. Cook for him whatever he desires, and pretend to like his favorite dishes even if you don’t. […] Save his money. […] Don’t be jealous, etc.” (from Isaac, Mishle Arav in Dishon 1986, 4).
The wife, as she appears especially in the Hebrew maqamas (Drory 2000, 190–210; Huss 1991, vol. 1, 17–29; Pagis 1976, 199–244), is not mute as is the courtly lady, nor is her voice comely as is the bride’s. The wife’s mouth is ceaselessly open—gulping food; demanding money, maids, house utensils, clothes and jewels; complaining, lying, rioting, gossiping, revealing secrets and constantly scandalizing her poor husband:
A woman’s face is a semblance of a demon;
when looking at her my body tears apart.
Her tongue makes my hair bristle on my head,
her voice loosens the bonds of my heart.
She closes gates of peace and friendship
and opens doors of quarrel and strife.
On top of Mount Complaint she builds her house,
there her tent is spread and stretched tight.
(Joseph Ibn Zabara, Sefer Sha’ashu’im)
Married life becomes then the arena for the taming of the shrew. Themes like women’s wiles, female fickleness and wives’ unfaithfulness abide (Roth 1978, 145–165; Rosen 2003, chapter 5). Husbands are advised to behave as men and to exercise their authority. Wifehood is the result of a process of culturing and disciplining. Hence, women should be contained within walls, veiled, hidden, muted, and if needed, also beaten. Such is the moral advice given to husbands by Samuel ha-Nagid, in his book of moral epigrams Ben Mishle: “Beat your wife daily, lest she rule over you like a man, and raise her head up/Be not, my son, your wife’s wife, and let her not be her husband’s husband” (Ben Mishle, 162); “Walls and castles were erected for woman—her glory lies in bedspreads and spinning/Her face is pudendum displayed on the main road that has to be covered by shawls and veils.” (ibid., 283).
The extent to which Woman is allied in patriarchal imagination with base nature and its uncontrollable forces is manifest in a grotesque depiction of the female body by Judah al-Harizi. Woman here is identified with formlessness, vacuity, matter, corporeality, body discharges, pollution, diseases, ugliness, and beastliness; with the demonic and evil: “Her face—fury, her voice—thunder, her breath—putrid; her cheeks—dried up, her complexion—blackness itself, her teeth like wolves’ or bears’, eyes like scorpions’, stature—a town wall, thighs—two tree-trunks, lips—twisted like a donkey’s, mouth—a grave to food and drinks, belly—a cave, teeth putrid like bears’, full of slime and excrement, speech—like turmoil at midnight, breath like a whirlwind, teeth grinding like a pestle and mortar, then sending everything to a deep abyss. She is in the image of Death Angels, resembling the Scape-Demon” (al-Harizi’s sixth maqama). The female body is dismembered and fragmented here, with each limb hyperbolically compared to another scary object. The result is a disproportionate, mythical, surrealistic, horrifying creature. Noteworthy is the emphasis on the mouth, lips, and teeth, and on what comes out of it: spittle, breath and voice. Her mouth, analogous to her insatiable vagina, is busy grinding and gulping.
Another appalling female representation is that of Tevel as it appears in lamentations for the dead, as well as in ascetic and penitential poems. Tevel (Earth, or the terrestrial world) is the allegorical personification of the world’s evil (Levin 1995, 3:60–103). The belief that women are the embodiment of world’s evil as well as its cause went hand in hand with the perception that this corrupted world was essentially feminine. Hence, the material world and its temptations were imagined as a woman whose outward attractive appearance hides her true nature—an ugly crone, a rotten prostitute. Wicked Tevel is said to hypnotize her human victims with her material riches, beauty, scarlet skirts, gold, jewels, wine, nectar, fruits and so on. She promises humans (who are her sons) possessions, honor, and stature and then cheats on them. She marries men and then divorces them; makes love—and slays her lovers. Men should resist her dark power:
She lures the boors with her riches;
she tempts them with fine silks,
Then she upsets them with much grief and pain—
and so few are the drops of her cure!
(Moses Ibn Ezra 1:86)
Tevel seems to conform to the Jungian-Neumannian archetypes of the Great Adulteress and the Terrible Mother. She is the cannibal mother of her sons, who are also her philanderers. Her womb is their tomb. She feeds her children and then feeds on their flesh. “She devours her children—though they have hardly savored her bread and flesh” (Ibn Gabirol, 305). This Mother should be dishonored and her shame dis-covered. Her sons “ought to strip off the rims of your coat over your face” (Ibn Ezra, 151).
The mythological Mother Earth is almost the sole representation of motherhood in medieval Hebrew literature. (This rarity can only be compared to the surprising absence of children and childhood.) Mother as mourner of her dead child appears in a certain group of lamentations over the dead (mostly by Judah ha-Levi). Here the female voice predominates, as against the typical lament-poem where both mourner and deceased are masculine. Arranged in balladlike forms, these poems feature widowed wives and bereaved mothers dialoguing with the dead. Seldom the voice of a deceased daughter lamenting her forlorn youth emerges out of the grave. The simplified folkloric song form suggests an oral female tradition of lamentations. The woman’s voice here might be representative of the women keeners who, in traditional societies, are burdened with the task of expressing the grief of the community.
“Similarly laden with communal emotions is the speech of the Synagogue (Knesset) of Israel, this allegorical representative of the Nation, in liturgical poetry” (Scheindlin 1991). Given that Jewish women were barred from public prayer, and that, as repeated endlessly, “a woman’s voice is an obscenity,” why should the all-male praying congregation choose to address God through the agency of a female voice? Following the traditions of prophetic and midrashic allegory, Knesset Israel is the passionate paramour of Israel’s God. The voice of exiled Israel, politically oppressed and socially inferior, finds its figural embodiment in the desolate state of a despised and disenfranchised woman. She speaks as an outcast, a bereaved mother, a disgraced widow, a divorcée (or a wife abandoned without divorce), a sinful wife, a stray daughter, or a repentant who longs to be reunited with her husband. Read as a political discourse, medieval Hebrew liturgy is the expression of a powerless minority.
Gendered as feminine in Hebrew grammar is also the human soul, which is the subject (and/or the addressee) of many liturgical-penitential poems. Attracted to the body; polluted by evil and crude matter; divorced from the intellect—this menstruating, sinful allegorical abstraction of woman-soul is called upon to purify herself, to rid herself from her femaleness so that she can be re-allied with the elevated male elements of Creation. In liturgical poetry and moral allegories she speaks as a beloved gazelle yearning for union with her lover; a deserted plaintive wife enslaved to her enemy, the body; a stray daughter entreating her father God to return her home; a pupil listening to intellect’s lectures, or as the intellectual soul, preaching to the stubborn body.
Appearing in poetry as an allegorized figure is also poetry itself. Gendered feminine, she is called shira (poetry; poem), or bat ha-shir (“the daughter of poetry”). Like a woman, poetry is required to be beautifully decorated, i.e., “clothed” with rhetorical ornaments. Hence, poetry is depicted as a bride, adorned, veiled and perfumed, or else, as an enchantress, rousing the poet’s poetic libido: “She hunts her lover’s heart without a hook/but with the sweetness of her mouth” (Solomon da Piera). “Poetry’s daughter” is described as the poet’s own daughter, but at the same time she is also the poet’s mother (and, indeed, the mother of all poets!). The poet’s relationships with her are incestuous, since she is also his lustful mistress. The sexual metaphors highlight the link between eros and poetic creativity. The ungainly poem, that which does not meet the required aesthetic standards, is likened to a menstruating woman. Poetry is said to resemble woman not only in beauty but also in the use of artifice and deceit. The best of poetry—like the best of woman—is in its untruthfulness. Poetry’s use of metaphoric rather than literal language is considered as “poetry’s lies.” The poetic lie, gendered as feminine, is signified as opposed to (male) philosophic truth. While the poetic vocation was (especially in Jewish culture) exclusively male, there are some insinuations that poets are feminine, and even effeminate, because they are preoccupied with beauty, similitude, and vain rhetoric. The growing animosity toward poetry in the thirteenth century (e.g. in Maimonides and his followers) coincides with the flourishing of misogynous literature.
The inferiority of women based on metaphysical, biological, or ascetic grounds was rehearsed by Jewish philosophers, doctors, and moralists. Women were identified with matter, body, and defiled sexuality. Men were repeatedly warned against women’s threat to their well-being and were urged to exclude and silence them. Women were relegated to the realm of the beastly, the evil, and the demonic and banished from the sphere of the intellect and the divine. They were considered an obstacle to man’s peace in this world and to his redemption in the hereafter.
Obviously infected by misogyny (hatred of women) and misogamy (the propaganda against marriage) is the Hebrew maqama literature that flourished in the thirteenth century. Judah al-Harizi’s sixth maqama “The Wedding” written (circa 1220), in florid rhymed prose, tells about a man persuaded by a shrewish female matchmaker to marry a beautiful wife. When he unveils her, right after the wedding, he realizes that he has been duped; the promised beauty was replaced by a poor, ugly hag. (For her description as a female monster see above). Before escaping the groom beats the bride until she bleeds from her upper and lower “mouths.” The idea of the replaced bride is based on a previous work, Minhat Yehuda Sone ha-Nashim [The Offering of Judah the Women-Hater] by Judah Ibn Shabbetai (written in 1208). Here the duped bridegroom is an ex-anti-marriage missionary. After he succeeds in persuading husbands to divorce and dissuading young men from marriage, the women, young and old, organize to fight Zerah’s misogamous propaganda. The women struggle to preserve the institution of marriage, and insist on the woman’s right to be sexually satisfied by her husband (i.e., ‘onah). Led by an old shrew they will talk him into marriage with a perfect young lady, whom they will replace with a wicked, ugly, greedy and big-mouthed wife. Upon revealing his wife’s true face Zerah sues for divorce. The judge sentences him to death for destroying marriages, but the author of the piece himself comes to his rescue, saying that Zerah is just the creature of his imagination. This complex ending dramatizes an ambivalence about marriage. On the one hand, marriage and procreation are highly positive values in Jewish law and way of life. On the other hand, hostility to marriage permeated Judaism from ascetic trends in medieval Islam and Christianity. However ambivalent toward marriage such works are, they are unambiguous about women as being the source of evil (Huss; Rosen, Chapter 5).
“The Offering of Judah the Women-Hater” started a literary polemic which lasted throughout the thirteenth century. An immediate response was Ezrat Nashim [In Defence of Women], a rhymed story by a Provençal author called Isaac. He was encouraged to write his story, so he admits, by the women who were abused by Ibn Shabbetai. Here, a young wife, Rachel, is a perfect beauty, an ideal helpmate, long-suffering, loyal and efficacious. She is her husband’s lifesaver, delivering him from many troubles (Schirmann, 88–96). Another Provencal author, Yeda’aya ha-Penini responded to Ibn Shabbetai’s hostile work with his Ohev Nashim [Women’s Lover; 1295]. Here, women, led by a virtuous heroine, celebrate their victory over marriage haters such as Zerah and Ibn Shabbetai. Ibn Shabbetai descends from heaven to defend his work. In a literary trial which concludes the piece the judges sanction marriage.
One should not be deluded by these “defenses of women.” What is defended here is primarily marriage and not women. Marriage is good while woman is basically evil. When women (like the above Rachel) are dubbed “good,” it is because they are good for their husbands. This “profeminine discourse” has an “unfeminist quality” (Blamires 1977, 12). The advocacy of women is made in them by male voices springing from the heart of patriarchy. Apparently focusing on women, such works are clearly projections onto women (and onto marriage) of men’s concerns, interests and anxieties. Rather than being ideological battles (with woman-defenders retaliating against woman-haters for their literary misogyny), these pieces have to be seen as typical medieval rhetorical debates, exploiting sophisticated language for and against any given topic.
Debates over the good or bad “nature” of women are to be found also in Hebrew literature in Italy. The Mahbarot of Immanuel of Rome, are full with male poets entertaining themselves with this rhetorical sport of “praising the beautiful woman” and “condemning the ugly” using highly sophisticated language (Immanuel of Rome 35–43). Some dozen Italian-Hebrew poets were involved throughout the sixteenth century in a debate over women, cast in various poetic forms and influenced by Italian literature. The Hebrew poets brought arguments for and against women from the Bible, Greek mythology and Roman history. Though, again, the authors were exclusively male, this time women did participate as active readers and patrons of the poets (Pagis 1986, 259–300).
Underlying many of the discourses and genres of medieval Hebrew literature is a framework of a male-to-male talk. In this virtual economy men convene at the city gates or in literary salons in order to deliver to other men poems, stories, sermons, epigrams and jokes. The intention of such “homotextual” economy is to give textual pleasure to other men, or to get it from them. The commodity which is most often delivered in these textual transactions is “woman.” In a maqama by Immanuel of Rome, a poetic contest is held between a lady’s husband and her two suitors. The winner’s prize, upon which all three men agree, is the wife’s body. Wed to an impotent, this pretty lady is eager to get rid of virginity, and thus encourages the suitors to win the contest. Though it seems that she plays an active role in this comedy—her task is merely to serve as a conductive for male rhetorical energy. What starts as a hilarious burlesque with an exchange of epigrams and bawdy rhymes, ends with the husband’s victory. The impotent husband wins back his own wife, who is paradoxically a virgin and an adulterer; a wife he will never be able to satisfy. Marriage, however destitute and absurd—prevails.
In Immanuel’s second Mahberet, the poet falls in love with his patron’s half-sister. She is pretty as well as religious, prudish, and virgin—and completely inaccessible to men. The poets’ rhetoric is short in capturing her perfection. The more she resists men and their poetry, the more is Immanuel’s lust (and his talent) ignited. After a long correspondence, in which the lady shows no lesser talent than the poet himself, the firm lady succumbs and informs the poet that she is ready for love-making. At that point, upon the poet’s boasting to his patron about his achievement, the patron objects to this romance with his half-sister. Immanuel has to lie to her that all he intended was but to put her chastity to the test. Realizing that she has become a pawn in men’s rhetorical games, melancholy and disgrace overcome her, and she starves herself to death.
The ambivalence towards women in medieval societies found its literary counterpart in a poetics of women’s adoration and condemnation. As against ascetic sentiments that tended to demonize women, a great deal of medieval literature—Hebrew included—is obsessed with the idolization of women, with romantic love and carnal desire, with corporeal beauty and the pleasures of the Eros. Relating to the ambivalences in medieval Jewish-Spanish culture concerning sexuality, women, and marriage David Biale writes: “Indeed two souls often beat within the breast of the elite itself, and sometimes within the breast of the same individual. On the one hand, Jewish culture shared with its surroundings an extraordinary openness to the erotic. . . On the other hand, Jewish philosophers [adopted a] … negative stance on sexuality and the body. … Ambivalence over erotic behavior therefore plagued the Jewish elite” (Biale 1992, 89).
The issue of humor too is not to be separated from the homotextual frame. The humor engendered by the male social setup of the texts is almost unavoidably gendered: Jokes not to be told in mixed company are told; a man makes other men laugh at the expense of an absent woman; grotesque descriptions of women pass as entertainment; or fictional unlettered women are made to comically parrot biblical or talmudic (male) discourse. Cataloged by critics as parodies, travesties, satires, grotesques or just funny jokes, most extant treatments of these works view them as light pastimes. And while relegating them to the realm of the comic, scholars and critics occasionally joined the hilarity of the implied audience, especially when the ridicule of women was at stake. Alternatively, critics suggested that the humoristic “intention” of the writers must necessarily dissolve, or altogether undercut, misogyny. Either way they dismissed themselves from handling the more serious implications of gender, and of sexual politics, shrouded in this literature under “humor” and failed to see how humor is not the opposite of misogyny but rather one of its most effective tools.
With its tendency to follow conventional themes, clichéd metaphors, given genres, and above all stereotypes of the female figure—medieval Hebrew literature is hardly a satisfying source for tracing women’s “real” presence (or the presence of “real” women) in history. Rather than evidence to their presence, medieval literature furnishes textual manifestations of their absence and erasure. There are ample ways by which women can be made to disappear from the texts that speak about them. Woman’s absence is represented by procedures of silencing (woman is ideally mute or notoriously garrulous); stereotypization (woman is “good,” “bad,” “ugly,” etc.); abstraction (allegorical woman as concept without body); mythologization and dehumanizing (nymph, Medusa, Amazon, demon, beast); objectification (woman is a reified body without subjectivity or mind; she is matter, commodity, chattel, prize), and the like. It is the task of feminist literary criticism to follow the varied ways in which women and concepts of gender are textually manipulated—fictionalized, fantasized, poeticized, metaphorized, narrativized, dramatized—in male literature.
Closely related to the question of women’s presence/absence in medieval literature is the issue of female voices. To what extent are those female voices captured within male texts “authentic” and unmediated? Aren’t they muffled by male transmission? Don’t they serve the author’s androcentric position? Female voices seem often to embody patriarchal “truths” about women’s speech (women abuse language by lying, quarreling, complaining, enticing, and so on). However, utterances of female protagonists help to reveal the limits of the androcentric logic that produced them. They indicate points from which the homotextual hegemonic monolith can be dismantled.
A woman’s voice, clear and assertive, is heard in al-Harizi’s maqama (no. 41), fashioned as a debate between a Man and a Woman about the issue of women’s worth. Acting as a capable advocate of womankind, she objects to women’s silencing, and refutes one-by-one men’s assumptions of their inferiority. She counterbalances the Man in theology and in sophistry, manifesting familiarity with male erudition (Bible, Talmud, Aristotle, Maimonides). Although she is probably meant by the author to represent an absurd, imaginary creature, an object endowed with the right of speech, this woman foreshadows the feminist, resisting reader. Such “illegitimate” utterances of the “other” situated within the dominant discourse invite reading them as sites of both empowerment and embedded resistance, as seeds of “otherness” which defy the male texts’ own self-proclaimed and solid assumptions.
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Rosen, Tova. "Medieval Hebrew Literature: Portrayal of Women." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 22, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/medieval-hebrew-literature-portrayal-of-women>.