For approximately a decade a growing number of scholars (now numbering about thirty) have been researching and writing commentaries on tractates of Mishnah and Bavli as part of the Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud (FCBT) project. The scholars working on the project are quite a diverse group: men and women, Jews and non-Jews, practicing and non-practicing Jews, Israelis, Europeans, and Americans. The project was conceived by Professor Tal Ilan (Freie Universität Berlin), whose vision was to bring to Talmudic commentary the sort of systematic feminist analysis evident in feminist Bible commentaries published up to that time. Now nine years old, the FCBT project has yielded two introductory volumes for the Orders Mo’ed and Qodashim and five volumes of commentary: Bavli Ta’anit (Tal Ilan, 2008), Bavli Sukkah (Shulamit Valler, 2009), Bavli Betsah (Tamara Or, 2010), Mishnah Tamid, Middot and Qinim (Dalia Marx, 2013), and Bavli Keritot (Federico Dal Bo, 2013).
The emerging FCBT is unique and historic. It is a large and ambitious undertaking dedicated to analyzing the entire Bavli (and Mishnah tractates for which there is no Bavli) through a feminist lens and, in many cases, more broadly through the wider lens of gender. Due to the FCBT’s importance to the field of academic Talmud, this writer and Carol Bakhos (the immediate past co-chairs of SBL’s History and Literature of Early Rabbinic Judaism section) devoted a session to it at the 2015 Annual Meeting.
We organized a panel consisting of Tal Ilan, Cecilia Haendler Biondi (Freie Universität Berlin, Institute für Judaistik), Tanja Hidde (Freie Universität Berlin), and Gail Labovitz (American Jewish University), an eclectic group of senior and junior scholars at different phases of their commentary work on various tractates of Mishnah or Talmud Bavli. (Ilan and Labovitz presented on the Bavli and Haendler Biondi and Hidde on the Mishnah.) The panelists were initially given a rather open-ended charge to discuss their perspectives on the project overall, or any particular challenges encountered or interesting findings made in the course of working on their commentaries. We also encouraged the panelists to think about larger ideas such as how the FCBT is related to any particular feminist theory or framework, and what makes the FCBT “feminist” as opposed to, say, “gender-sensitive.”
Taken all together, the presentations and ensuing discussion illustrated the important and mutually enriching role that careful attention to manuscripts and source-, redaction- and form-criticism can play when employed in tandem with feminist and gender analysis. Apropos, the papers showed that even apart from feminist and gender analysis, the emerging FCBT has much to contribute toward our evolving understanding of the formation of the Bavli. These volumes of commentary therefore deserve close attention from scholars working in that subfield. In addition, the panel presentations and discussion raised important questions of method in feminist and gender studies as applied to rabbinic literature, such as: is there a uniquely “feminist” method to analyzing these literatures? (Could there be a feminist analysis of texts that have nothing at all to do with women or gender?) What about broader questions of gender, such as constructions of masculinity in the Mishnah and Bavli? Overall, the panel presentations and discussion suggested that continuing interaction between scholars working on FCBT commentaries and scholars of feminist and gender theory has rich potential.
Tal Ilan’s presentation opened with some helpful background and context for the project as a whole. She pointed out that the FCBT is selective; commentators do not comment on everything in their tractate, but on sugyot, stories, or even words and sentences that may in some way intersect with gender. Heuristically, the types of sources a FCBT commentator will tend to focus on fall into three broad categories: (1) texts that speak about women; (2) texts that Ilan described as “gender relevant,” such as a story on B. Hullin 60b about the moon, the gender of which changes from male to female and back; and (3) texts in which one might have expected to find women, but from which they are absent. Ilan illustrated this by reference to B. Hullin 111a, in which a nameless being with a shadowy identity prepares food for some rabbis, while we might have expected this activity to be attributed explicitly to a woman. (Ilan hypothesized that women are “disappeared” from the food preparation in this story because the focus is on correct knowledge of kashrut laws, a male domain.) As she is currently writing a commentary on Bavli Hullin herself, Ilan then analyzed an animal fable about two “married” mosquitoes (B. Hullin 58b). A female mosquito (בקתא) complained to the male mosquito (בקא) that she saw him suck blood from a man without telling her. Ilan pointed out that in Ms. Vatican 123B the female is not said to have “complained” (Ilan’s translation of “אימרא”), but to have “rebelled” (“אמרדא”). Ilan reads this reference to rebellion as an intertextual link to the law of the מורדת, the rebellious wife (see Ketubot, chapter 5). The female mosquito sees her husband’s solo meal as a violation of his “halakhic” obligation to provide for her, one that entitles her to “rebel” by withholding sex from him. The use of animals to discuss halakhic norms is to be expected in Hullin, which as Ilan pointed out, is all about animals, their anatomy, and similarities between human and animal anatomy. Moreover the halakhic undercurrent of this story may be a subtle critique of aspects of the Mishnah’s portrayal of the economics of marriage: Mishnah Ketubot does not contemplate that a wife’s rebellion may be due to her perception of her husband’s failure to live up to the terms of their marital contract. This point is elegantly (and amusingly) made in the story of the “married” mosquitoes.
Cecilia Haendler Biondi presented on the strange halakhah in M. Hallah 2:3 that a woman may sit naked to set aside the hallah portion because she can cover herself, while a man cannot do the latter, and hence may not sit naked to do the former. Through a careful reading of parallels in Tosefta Berakhot Mishnah Terumot, and Mishnah Demai as well as biblical, Yerushalmi, and Bavli material, Haendler Biondi drew some fascinating conclusions. First, human nakedness in the Bible is understood in two distinct ways: as an offense against the sacred (hence priests must cover their genitalia while in the tabernacle) and as related to sexuality (e.g., the Levitical prohibitions against “uncovering the nakedness” of various individuals). The tannaim reconstruct the biblical notion of nakedness as an offense against the sacred by including within it their own institution of separating hallah (which includes a rabbinically prescribed blessing), which also must not be violated by nakedness. Hence, the naked woman of M. Hallah 2:3 is a construct designed to highlight that rabbinic sacra are no less sacred than biblical sacra. This being so, the mishnah treats male and female nakedness non-hierarchically. That is, female nakedness is not any worse than male nakedness; both are equally forbidden in the presence of the sacred. The amoraim, however, by and large return to a focus on the old link between (female) nakedness and sexuality, and thus turn the woman of M. Hallah 2:3 from a ritual actor who covers herself so as not to offend the sacred into a woman who must cover herself so as to deflect the male gaze. In brief, amoraim are more focused on the link between female nakedness and sexuality, while the tannaim are more focused on the link between female nakedness and sacra. And, for the tannaim, the woman of M. Hallah 2:3 is simply a means by which to construct their own sacra as the equal of biblical sacra.
Tanja Hidde also focused on the Mishnah, in this case M. Shevu’ot 2:4 and M. Horayot 2:4, which share a reference to a “positive commandment” pertaining to the menstruant, identified as the commandment to separate from a woman who began menstruating during intercourse. M. Shevu’ot 2:4 identifies this as a positive commandment for which a court would be liable for an erroneous ruling (had they incorrectly instructed the husband to withdraw from his wife immediately). Hidde pointed out that M. Shevu’ot 2:3 deals with one who became or remembered his impurity while in the Temple, or who knew he was impure, but forgot and then remembered that he was indeed in the Temple. This juxtaposition of pericopes analogizes entering the Temple to entering a woman, as well as leaving the Temple after discovery or awareness of impurity to leaving a woman in a similar situation. But the case of M. Shevu’ot 2:4 (and even of 2:3, mutatis mutandis) is absurd because how would a court be present and aware of the marital intercourse such that they could have issued an erroneous ruling that the husband must withdraw immediately? Hidde hypothesized that the whole point of M. Shevu’ot 2:4 is to use the woman instrumentally to create halakhic tension, to establish that intercourse with a menstruant is such a taboo that there is a double violation—of a negative commandment certainly, but also of a positive commandment. The double violation is that of prohibited entry (forbidden by negative commandment) and of prohibited immediate exit when a woman begins menstruating during intercourse (a situation covered by the positive commandment “separate from a menstruant”). Hidde pointed out that this positive commandment assumed by the mishnah is difficult to locate in the Torah. The amoraim identify its biblical source as Leviticus 15:24, in a rather close reading of the verse. Hidde observed that the woman of M. Shevu’ot 2:4 is completely instrumentalized: once she tells her husband “I have become impure” her job is done, with rabbinic discussion focusing solely on the husband’s responsibility and the possible erroneous judicial ruling.
The panel presentations then returned to the Bavli with Gail Labovitz’s paper on the question of who is to mourn for whom as presented on B. Mo’ed Qatan 20b. Labovitz stressed that the many and complex interpretive difficulties in the sugya point to the extent to which issues of gender and the composition of the family played a role in the formulation of the material. Disagreeing in part with other scholarship on the sugya, Labovitz observed that the amoraic and stammaitic parts of the sugya are most closely concerned with the wife’s place in the family and the connection that may or may not exist between the husband and wife’s natal family. Gender and marriage are critical to the formation of the Bavli sugya, notably the question: when a man marries a woman, does he or how does he become related to her family, and she to his? Following a painstaking source-critical and gender analysis, Labovitz concluded that the two key baraitot in the sugya should be approached with a hermeneutic of suspicion. The first one that appears in the sugya likely had legitimate tannaitic origins but was edited in Babylonia into the form in which it now appears in the Bavli, while the second was likely created ab initio in Babylonia and probably has no authentic tannaitic roots at all. Labovitz hypothesized that the redactors wished to institute a limitation in mourning through marriage, with a spouse required to mourn only for parents-in-law, not other secondary relatives. But by attempting to root this limitation in a “tannaitic” source, the redactors created (inadvertently or otherwise) a self-contradictory image of mourning and sexuality.
The skillful and learned textual work presented in the session teaches a lesson that bears repeating: discerning all that the Mishnah and Bavli have to say about women and gender requires digging deep into manuscripts, and the careful wielding of the scalpels of source-, redaction-, and form-criticism. Not philological-historical method or critical theory, but philological-historical method plus critical theory.