Aggadic literature is one of the central places that defines Jewish gender identity. Reading these texts through a gender-related lens enables us to understand the image of the woman that the Sages instilled in Jewish culture. Dr. Inbar Raveh writes about feminist research into rabbinic literature and about the balance between a critical reading of the texts and an appreciation of their charm.
The desire to read rabbinic literature as a modern, secular person has been beating in my heart for many years. As a reader, I have always felt that “scientific” encounters with rabbinic literature, which attempt to control the texts and squeeze some kind of unified, coherent understanding out of them, are frustrating. The encounter with feminist criticism searching for clarity between critical writing and creativity, between the everyday and the academic, between philosophy and literature, has thus been fruitful for me.
My interest in aggadic literature is literary. I see aggadah as an art form and like all art forms is interpretive in its essence. Every art form uses raw materials from life to reveal new characteristics and meaning. Within this framework, emotion is certainly a main motive of textual interpretation; to interpret means to love the object of interpretation and to protect it from potential harm. It is thus important to emphasize the love of the text because feminist readings of classic texts complicate the relationships with the text quite a bit.
Rabbinic literature was written by men, deals mostly with men, and its interest is to advance men’s goals. The attitude towards women and femininity in rabbinic literature is subject to the point of view of the texts’ creator, Women appear in these texts in secondary position–as wife, mother, or daughter, and not as active participants.
We know that gender identities are cultural and are always acquired and learned in some way. Aggadic literature is one of the main arenas in which Jewish gender identity is formed. An investigation into rabbinic literature is thus effectively an investigation into the texts that formed Jewish “femininity” and is meant to help us understand what the rabbis thought of women and how they designed and conceived the image of women. Moreover, it demonstrates how the image, identity, and status of women were set forth for generations of Jewish society.
Nechama Golan, "Sefer Nashim," 2001
More generally, a critical-feminist reading of aggadic literature provides an unprecedented opportunity to understand the flexibility of gender representation, its seriousness, its brevity, and its strength. The questions I ask when I read this literature are: What are the ways in which the rabbis transmit gender ideology? What are the literary tools that transform a social convention into absolute truth, perceived as immutable, unchangeable, and “natural”?
Another goal of feminist reading of rabbinic literature is to reproduce the stories and voices of women as well as the social-historical backdrop of their lives. My assumption is that an examination of figures at the fringes of a culture rather than at the center of the discourse can reveal important aspects of that culture. This kind of examination is part of a process of empowering the female subject by transferring her from the margins of society to its center while simultaneously exposing the methods used for perpetuating male domination of society – as well as offering alternative possibilities to this reality.
One difficult question is: How can the female reader identify with the aesthetics and values of rabbinic literature in which the man is at the center? Can the female reader who experiences herself as the “reading subject” enjoy interpretive texts in which women are silent objects?
Patrocinio Schweickart, in her book Reading Ourselves: Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading, points to the alluring power of some of the canonical texts that work even on some resistant female readers. She challenges the feminist reader to ask important questions such as: Where does the text derive its power to trap us in its net? How do so many sexist texts succeed in charming us even after we’ve become feminist critics? In light of this she argues that certain texts require a double reading with two simultaneous modes of interpretation: one negative, framing the texts’ complicity in patriarchal ideological deviation; and a second positive, reproducing the emotional and aesthetic power at the core of the texts. She suggests adopting this dual approach that responds to the various impulses that coexist within us in relation to the text could be very valuable to the reading of aggadic literature. The act of interpretation including emotional identification and fascination alongside moral objection is a formidable challenge for the modern female reader (as well as for the male egalitarian reader).
There is also an understated value of exposing the Jewish world to gender issues in rabbinic literature. The field of gender seems to be unchanging and static but in fact is a significant point of struggle and constant change. Gender research into rabbinic literature is meant to offer new perspectives on old questions and to turn women into active and visible participants in renewed definitions of gender. I have no doubt that the path to a more egalitarian culture requires an understanding of the gender constructs that our ancestors bequeathed to us. Since rabbinic literature is one of our most important spiritual foundations and cultural assets, reading it through modern and post-modern lenses is important even if the original positions do not meet the standards and criteria of twenty-first century feminism.
We have a certain advantage over the Sages in that we are more aware of the subconscious motives that have impacted our own belief systems. Perhaps in light of our insights, we will be able to build more egalitarian social relationships between the sexes and even give them Jewish legitimacy.
Dr. Inbar Raveh is a gender researcher studying aggadic literature. She teachers in the Storytellers Beit Midrash at Elul and is a research fellow at the Hartman Institute.