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Jewish Law

Levant: Women in the Jewish Communities after the Ottoman Conquest of 1517

Far-reaching changes began to take place in the Jewish world at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Following the expulsion from Spain in 1492 there was a period of wandering and political, demographic and social upheaval. On the one hand, this led to an encounter between the Jews who had left Spain and Portugal and the traditions of Ashkenaz, North Africa, Italy and the Orient; it also led to many personal crises, sundered families, and other disasters, which left women as agunot and widows.

Lesbianism

For most of its three-thousand-year history, lesbianism has been a subject of little interest in Jewish texts and societies. Only in the late twentieth century have Jewish scholars and communities faced the issue of erotic love between women.

Legal-Religious Status of the Virgin

The basic [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:339]ketubbah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] of a virgin (two hundred maneh [one maneh=fifty shekels]) was double that of a non-virgin (one hundred maneh) ([jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:361]Mishnah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] Ketubbot 1:2). Those who were divorced or widowed while betrothed but before marriage retain their status of virgin. This difference was doubled in the case of the daughter of a priest who was a virgin, whose basic ketubbah was four hundred maneh (Mishnah Ketubbot 1:5). This distinction emphasizes the value of virginity and the significance of sexual exclusivity on the part of the woman to her husband and, in the case of the priest, the value of caste status. A number of situations were described biblically which deal with the seduction or the rape of a virgin who is either unattached or betrothed. Consensual sexual intercourse of the betrothed or married woman with someone other than her husband would put both the woman and her paramour in the category of adulterers. Seduction is considered to be consensual but the cases discussed in the Bible according to rabbinic interpretation were dealing with minor girls who did not have the legal right of consent. [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:383]Rambam[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] covers this material in Hilkhot Na’arah Betulah.

Legal-Religious Status of the Suspected Adulteress (Sotah)

Perhaps one of the most embarrassing and humiliating situations for a man, particularly in the Middle East, is infidelity on the part of his wife. Suspicion of infidelity creates a similar dynamics in the Jewish legal system but is moderated by issues of doubt. A man’s suspicion of infidelity on the part of his wife is one of the most prejudicial legal situations for women, clearly demonstrating inequality in the marriage relationship. When a man acquires a woman as his wife, he acquires exclusive rights to her sexuality. The reverse, of course, is not true, since a man (until the decree of Rabbenu Gershom [c. 960–1028] for Ashkenazic Jews and the rise of the State of Israel also for Sephardic Jews, with some anomalous situations still existing) is permitted to have more than one wife as well as concubines, and his legal status is unprejudiced by fornication.

Legal-Religious Status of the Moredet (Rebellious Wife)

A [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:365]moredet[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] is defined as a married woman who refuses to have sexual relations with her husband (the most normal case), or refuses to do the assigned work of the wife ([jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:361]Mishnah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] Ketubbot 5:5), a betrothed girl or woman whose set time for marriage has arrived and who refuses to marry, or a [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:430]yevamah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] who refuses to undergo [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:431]yibbum[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] ([jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:349]levirate marriage[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary]) with the [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:429]yavam[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] (levir). The cases of the married woman refusing sexual relations and the yevamah refusing yibbum demonstrate that the legal concept of a married woman includes the idea that she has given ongoing and permanent consent to sexual relations and that refusal thus constitutes rebellion.

Legal-Religious Status of the Married Woman

The rabbis established the criteria necessary for legal marriage. These include the man’s acquiring (purchasing) the woman with a formula that indicates that he is the purchaser, the sole active party in the marriage process: payment of the appropriate minimum amount of money; or a document with the appropriate formula; or sexual relations for the sake of marital acquisition ([jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:383]Rambam[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary], Ishut 3: 2–5). There must be two valid witnesses. The acquisition must be done with the woman’s consent and any document must be written specifically in her name. There must be two valid witnesses to the seclusion of the couple for marriage by sexual relations, the man must state that it is for marriage through sexual relations, and he must complete a sexual act even if it is not vaginal intercourse. Although sexual relations for the sake of marriage constitute legal marriage, it was considered inappropriate behavior and the man was flogged for performing this type of marriage (ibid. 3:21). Casual giving of goods using a marriage formula is not considered marriage since it must be part of a serious conversation with marriage as its purpose (ibid. 3:7). The father may betroth his minor and maiden daughter to a Jewish man without her consent, but if she is subsequently divorced or widowed as a minor, she is considered an orphan in his lifetime and he no longer has the right to marry her off (ibid. 3: 11–12). A minor girl cannot arrange her own marriage. Marriage can be accomplished by agency from both the husband’s side and the wife’s side, but it is considered a [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:362]mitzvah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] for the man to see the woman prior to marriage lest he find something repulsive in her that the agent would not notice. The woman is not obligated to see the man before marriage because of the rabbinic understanding that she would prefer to be married even if the man was not appealing (ibid. 3:15, 19). A blessing (birkat erusin) should be recited (ibid. 3:24).

Legal-Religious Status of the Female According to Age

[jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:361]Mishnah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:373]Niddah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] 3:7 gives no status to the embryo prior to forty days from conception: it is considered “mere water.” At three months after conception, the pregnancy is considered recognizable (Niddah 2:4). This does not explicitly change the legal status of the fetus but rather that of the mother in terms of legal presumptions concerning her purity status. Some poskim do make a distinction in reference to abortion between the first forty days and three months.

Legal-Religious Status of the Jewish Female

Hebrew is a gendered language in which women are or may be included in masculine plural address and masculine plural verbs. When the address in the [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:424]Torah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] is “man or woman” (ish o isha) or “a person” (adam or nefesh), and sometimes in the plural, inclusion of women (sg. isha) can be assumed. When the Torah addresses in unspecified masculine singular language it is assumed that women are included unless they are exempted on grounds of physiology or by particular hermeneutic methods which depend chiefly upon the gendered aspects of the language, such as singular and plural masculine pronominal suffixes which are the norm, and word choice in address such as ish. These include but are not limited tothe sons of Israel but not the daughters of Israel” (for benei Yisrael); “the sons of Aaron but not the daughters of Aaron” (for benei aharon); “your son/s but not your daughter/s” (for banekha or beneikhem); “you [masculine]” (ata or atem) and the like.

Leadership and Authority

All early biblical leaders of the Jewish people were elected by God. The matriarchs and patriarchs, priests, prophets, kings, judges and warriors were chosen by divine plan to lead the nation at different points in its history. The [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:424]Torah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] offers us glimpses into the relationships between Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Rachel, Leah and Jacob, based on the principle that ma’aseh avot siman le-banim (the deeds of the ancestors serve as a model for the descendents). Beyond the biblical text, the influence of matriarchal faith and insight is conveyed in the midrashic literature which expands the role of wife, helper and mother to include prophetess, teacher and visionary. Yet it is clear from the biblical narrative that females did not serve in the broader leadership roles filled by males.

Leaders in Israel's Religious Communities

Since the late twentieth century women have begun to assume leadership positions that are undoubtedly “religious” in both content and form. Religious leaders, like any other leaders, guide their followers towards achieving goals and purposes, and can do so by influencing their followers’ motivation. Religious leaders guide their followers towards religious goals and derive their authority to do so from the strength of their own religious characteristics. What therefore distinguishes them from secular leaders is that even in democratic societies their authority does not emanate solely from the public, but also from a religious source—in the case of Judaism, the [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:424]Torah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary]. Hence, a crucial criterion for religious leadership in the world of Jewry is “knowledge of the Torah,” by which is meant the ability to refer to the canonical texts in an unmediated manner.

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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Jewish Law." (Viewed on December 13, 2017) <https://jwa.org/topics/jewish-law>.

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