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Marriage

Infertile Wife in Rabbinic Judaism

Rabbinic Judaism constructed differing legal, religious, and social roles for men and women that were intended to foster women’s reproductive functions and nurturing qualities, even as it placed them under the control of a dominant husband. While childlessness was perceived as a grave misfortune for both men and women, a male’s failure to generate offspring violated a legal obligation, since men alone were obligated to have children. The prooftext frequently cited for this unilateral ruling was Genesis 35:11, where Jacob is commanded in the second person masculine singular to “Be fertile and increase.” According to BT Pesahim 113b, the childless man is reckoned as if menuddeh, “cut off” from all communion with God, like one who has deliberately disregarded divine commands. BT Nedarim 64b, among other texts, accounts him as already dead, together with the pauper, the leper, and the blind. BT Sanhedrin 36b ordains that the childless scholar may not sit on the Sanhedrin.

Imma Shalom

Imma Shalom (Mother of Peace) is identified in the [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:298]Babylonian Talmud[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] as the wife of R. Eliezer, a prominent sage who flourished circa 75 c.e., and the sister of Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, the head of the Sanhedrin. She is mentioned only a few times in rabbinic literature. After R. Eliezer defied his colleagues in the story about the oven of Aknai, his wife tried to save him from the harm she predicted would befall him. However, she failed because she erred regarding the New Moon (BT Baba Mezia 59b). Upon hearing her husband predict that a student who treated him disrespectfully would not finish out his week, she asked him if he were a prophet (BT Eruvin 63a).

Iggeret Ha-Kodesh

The Iggeret ha-Kodesh (The Holy Epistle), a Kabbalistic work written in the second half of the twelfth century, has been mistakenly attributed to the Ramban (Moses ben Nahman or Nahmanides, 1194–1270 - see Update below). The question of the composition’s author has prompted various answers: Gershom Scholem (1897–1982) at first believed that the author was Rabbi Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla (1248–1325), a kabbalist who lived a generation after the Ramban. He later recanted this view and attributed the work to the kabbalist Rabbi Joseph of Shushan (thirteenth century), who was especially known for his erotic works.

Beba Idelson

Beba Trachtenberg was born on October 14, 1895 in Yekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk), Ukraine, then part of the Russian empire. Her parental home was poor and unattractive and the family lived in hardship, primarily because her father, Yitzhak, had no regular means of income. The Trachtenbergs provide a good example of the changes undergone by East European Jewry at the time. Beba’s mother, Rivka, was a pupil at the progymnasia, a kind of state junior high school. Her father, who was religiously observant, studied [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:416]Talmud[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] but was also well-versed in the customs and practices of modern life. He sent his sons to heder and hired a private tutor for his daughters.

Libby Holman

“I always have to break a song over my back. … I just can’t sing a song; it has to be part of my marrow and bones and everything,” Libby Holman explained in a 1966 interview. Daring, dark, and impetuous, Holman led a rich public life that touched a dizzying array of people, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Montgomery Clift, from Alice B. Toklas to Jane Bowles. A musical and sexual revolutionary from the 1920s to the 1960s, Holman succeeded at two different musical careers. Known as the “Statue of Libby,” she carried one of the smokiest torches of American music hall society in the 1920s and 1930s, and was the inventor of the strapless evening dress. From a deep sense of personal commitment, she later made significant contributions to the civil rights movement as both an artist and a wealthy benefactor. However, murder, millionaires, death, and suicide were morbid recurring themes in Libby Holman’s life, reaching tabloid proportions.

Herodian Women

The Herodian dynasty produced a large number of seemingly impressive women. However, it is not always clear whether these women were really impressive or whether their literary portrayal made them so. We know that Nicolaus of Damascus, who was Herod’s court historian, was deeply interested in domestic affairs and assigned to women a diabolical role in the turn of events. Even after his writings ceased, other court historians adopted some of his rhetorical techniques. We today know almost everything about these women from Josephus, who used Nicolaus and other sources in his writings.

Hasmonean Women

No woman of the Hasmonean family is mentioned in the two books devoted to the Hasmonean rebellion—Maccabees I and II, the authors of which showed no interest in the families of the Hasmonean brothers. Yet Hasmonean women seem to have played a decisive role in the history of the dynasty, particularly as regards the succession process. This cannot be contested, in light of the fact that this dynasty produced the only legitimate queen in Jewish history (see under Shelamziyyon). Yet the queen is hardly the only Hasmonean woman who made an impression on history. All we know of these women comes from the works of Josephus, but Josephus himself obviously relied on earlier sources for his description of them. Whatever this earlier source (or sources) was, it was probably written in the same tradition as the books of Maccabees: it documented the women’s actions, but did not see fit to document their names. Thus they can only be described as relatives of their menfolk.

Haskalah Literature: Portrayal of Women

To a large extent, the image of women in [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:325]Haskalah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] literature reflects the relationship between the sexes in Ashkenazi Jewish society. Authors, poets and playwrights who wrote in the spirit of the Haskalah movement were affected, in no small measure, by the prevailing attitude toward women in eighteenth and nineteenth-century European culture. But the female characters that they created, whether in Hebrew or Yiddish (the two languages of Haskalah literature), were not simply lifted “as is” from external literary models nor constructed in accordance with some ideological master plan borrowed directly from the European Enlightenment. Most of the extant works from the Haskalah period (it should be recalled that many manuscripts by [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:352]maskilim[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] never saw print) were written by men.

Haskalah Attitudes Toward Women

For the men of intellect who burst upon Ashkenazic Jewish society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, starting a cultural revolution of [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:325]Haskalah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] (enlightenment), the question of women’s status was the touchstone for the validity and consolidation of their innovative worldview. One of the outstanding proponents of the Haskalah was Judah Leib Gordon (1831–1892), who expressed the ambiguity of [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:352]maskilim[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] toward the “woman question.” Beginning in the 1870s, women Hebrew readers in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Russia and women students in various cities in Europe considered him one of the few people who showed special sensitivity and empathy with regard to the difficult lives of Jewish women.

Hasidism

Hasidism—a spiritual revival movement associated with the founding figure of Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (Besht, c. 1700–1760), which began in Poland in the second half of the eighteenth century and became a mass movement of Eastern European Jewry by the early decades of the nineteenth—has been celebrated as nothing less than a “feminist” revolution in early modern Judaism. The first to depict it in this light was Samuel Abba Horodezky (1871–1957) who, in his four-volume Hebrew history of Hasidism, first published in 1923, claimed that “the Jewish woman was given complete equality in the emotional, mystical, religious life of Beshtian Hasidism” (vol. 4, 68). Horodezky’s account underlies virtually every subsequent treatment of the subject, whether in the popular, belletristic and semi-scholarly literature on the history of Hasidism, or in such works, mostly apologetic and uncritical, as have set out to discover and catalogue the achievements of prominent women throughout pre-modern Judaism. Notably, until relatively recently, Hasidic scholarship has totally ignored the subject, implicitly dismissing it as either marginal or insufficiently documented to permit serious consideration.

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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Marriage." (Viewed on September 21, 2018) <https://jwa.org/topics/marriage>.

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