The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition

Why rabbis disagree about women

By Simon Rocker, August 25, 2011

Isaac Sassoon
Cambridge University Press, £45

In ancient days, the prophetess Huldah was said by one venerable sources to dispense her religious teaching from inside a yeshivah. Such a thing would seem outlandishly radical in parts of the Orthodox world these days and have some of the guardians of tradition foaming at the beard.

Isaac Sassoon cites Huldah's example in a new book which will add to the growing debate over women in Judaism by questioning some of the assumptions and attitudes that have led to restrictions on their role in religious life.

Sassoon, who teaches at the Institute of Traditional Judaism in the USA, comes with both an Orthodox semichah from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and an academic background which takes for granted that the Torah is a work of composite authorship.

He argues that Deuteronomy is far more inclusive of women than Leviticus with its priestly notions of purity. In his eyes, there is no monolithic view of women in the Bible and Talmud but a "rich diversity" of sometimes conflicting views which challenge what has come to be taken as received wisdom.

He points out the differences among talmudic rabbis over whether women should study the Torah, contrasting Ben Azzai's approval to the infamous dictum ascribed to Rabbi Eliezer, "Let the words of the Torah be burned rather than handed over to women."

Using a document found in the Dead Sea Scroll, he traces the discouragement of polygamy to an interpretation of a verse in Leviticus, which is usually more narrowly understood as a ban on a man marrying a woman and her sister while both are alive.

The book's rather wordy style betrays its origins as a doctoral thesis but its gathering of source material is impressive and its analysis intriguing.

Last updated: 11:54am, August 25 2011