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My dear daughter… have things really changed?

When a critique of late 1500s Jewish women's experience can largely be applied to today's 21st century Orthodox Jewish women's experience, we have a problem

While my graduate paper on Jewish education in Early Modern Europe is not focusing on gender specifically, I have been amazed by the historical information depicting the lives of Jewish women. With the generalities of what I have learned so far — mostly, that we tend to view our religious education history through rose-tinted glasses (most Jews were in fact not even functionally literate) — I was expecting to see… well, what I expected. In other words, that women were not educated and confined to the home.

Now this is certainly true, and I am afraid to say that a wonderful teacher of mine who enthusiastically said that women have always known how to calculate their menstrual cycles using probability is woefully wrong. On the average, Jews may have been more interested in education historically than their Christian counterparts, but the ultimate outcomes of literacy and religious knowledge (not to say, secular) were overall quite low.

My preparations for my paper brought me to a fantastic analysis entitled “Dear Daughter” by Edward Fram (2007) of Rabbi Benjamin Slonik’s Seder Mitzvot HaNashim. This was a work first published in the late 1500s — the copy Fram uses is that of Cracow 1585 — and it is designed to educate women on the laws of Niddah (menstrual purity), Hallah (taking bread) and Candle-lighting. These three commandments are seen as particularly important for women. What made Slonik’s work particularly revolutionary was that it was written for women and in the Yiddish vernacular. In other words — accessible (for a change). This reduced the need for women to turn constantly to male rabbis or the local scholar for the technicalities of what was often something very personal (such as examining bloodstains).

Now, I am not aiming to give a book review here. However, what struck me quite harshly, if I am honest, is that a lot has not changed. I commend immensely and proudly the initiatives and efforts to educate our young Jewish women today; but we have much more progress that needs to be made. Below, I aim to show how I see two parallels of the 1585 work in our 2022 lives.

Firstly: men writing for women. Need I say more? How many times do you see a female-authored book on religious law standing proudly on the front display in a religious Jewish bookstore? *thinks* Why, I ask you, why are men writing on minutiae that they will never personally understand and then disseminating this for women? “The” rabbi of the ages has never and will never undergo a menstrual period, nor be the female partner in sexual relations. It is like Mars writing on Venus, if I may quote an old quip. Men need endless books on how to understand their wives (and vice versa) — but here, he must tell me the dictates of a G-d-given law (not man!) that govern my body.

And today, while rabbis continue to write these books and tell women how to be good wives and Jewish ladies, women’s photographs are being censored by popular Jewish magazines and the dress expectations become more and more suffocating. However, as a large poster brandished itself in my face from the bus (yes, for those who have read my other posts, “the” bus): “Do you want to be the daughter of the evil Satan (sitra achra) or the daughter of G-d?” I guess it’s easy to choose.

Secondly: a point that prompted this whole post in fact was Fram’s assessment of Jewish women’s social positionality. Within Jewish society, the woman was often seen as the temptress and the one responsible for not being provocative; however, when placed in the secular world — or nowadays, even the irreligious Jewish world — she became the exemplar of virtue. This feels all too familiar for me. I have been told by both male and female educators alike that I have a responsibility as a Jewish woman to be better than average female (not quite sure how that worked out).

When contrasted with the outside world, the Jewish woman becomes something to be protected for she is higher than thou, a temptress no more. She needs to be safeguarded from non-Jewish harassment and external influence for who else will educate our children? Of course, that age-old moral appeal is ironic given the Talmud does not hold women responsible in their own sons’ education (Kiddushin 29b).

These were two briefly outlined parallels between then and now. Once again, I stress that a lot has changed for the good. Many Jewish women are becoming more educated, and there are wonderful programs that enable Orthodox women to become halachic guides when it comes to the laws directly impacting women, such as niddah.

History is crucial to reflection and self-scrutiny. We can become content with progress until we realize there is so much more to do and so many more barriers to break. Ultimately, reading Fram was like reading a critique of our current society although his focus was nearly 437 years ago, and it was sobering.

But we should not have to be reading the history books for social critique. Just a couple of weeks ago, we entered the new year of 5783. Let us take the joyous festival of Sukkot to consider what we will be doing for our ourselves, our granddaughters, daughters, sisters, wives, mothers and all women in our lives to give them a better future and say in the Jewish world.

About the Author
Raised in South Africa, Tanya graduated cum laude with a BA in French and Philosophy in 2020. An aspiring academic, she is currently studying for her MA in Jewish Studies at Hebrew University.
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