This article is derived from Prof. Judith Hauptman's new book, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman' Voice — a reading of Talmudic texts with feminist sensibilities. The anecdotes are selected from two unrelated Talmudic discussions which demonstrate (among other things) how — with a resolute heart, a sharp mind and a clever disguise — women finding themselves in a legal-religious position subordinate to that of men, succeed in turning things upside-down, or more correctly — rightside-up.

The Obligation To Procreate

In a discussion of rabbinic attitudes regarding the obligation to procreate and a woman's ability to initiate a divorce for her own sake, several anecdotes tell of women who seek rabbinic assistance to dissolve their childless marriages at the end of ten years; the women argue that if the obligation to procreate is that of the woman, she, and not only he, should be allowed to try to have a child with someone else. In two particular anecdotes,[1] R. Ammi (who lived in the Land of Israel) and R. Nahman (who lived in Babylonia) hold that women are not obligated to procreate. In each instance, the women are clever, resolute and persistent, and refuse to accept "no" for an answer; they keep trying to get the rabbi to rule in their favor. The rabbis are persuaded by their poignant presentation and apt argumentation, and decide to help them obtain a get (divorce) so that they can collect their marriage settlement. In doing so, they act boldly by circumventing legal standards in order to meet women's needs.

The discussion continues with an interesting argument for exempting women from the obligation to procreate, in which the roles are reversed; the husband wants to have more children, but his wife does not:

Judah and Hezekiah were twins. One was fully formed at the end of nine months [of gestation] and one at the beginning of seven [and so their mother gave birth to each one separately]. Judith, the wife of R. Hiyya [and the mother of the twins], suffered [agonizing] labor pains [and because of this unusual twin birth, wanted to stop having children]. She disguised herself, came before [her husband] R. Hiyya, and asked, "Is a woman obligated to procreate?" He answered, "No." She went and drank a sterilizing potion. After some time passed, it became known [that she was avoiding pregnancy]. Her husband said to her, "If only you had given birth to one more bellyful."

R. Hiyya rules in his wife's favor, exempting her from the obligation to procreate. Some time later his very own halakhic (religio-legal) decision comes back to haunt him; had he obligated women to procreate, his wife would have had no choice, even after the difficult birth, but to continue to have more children, which would have been very much to his liking.... Judith, like the women in the other anecdotes, is clever and resolute. Since she suspected that R. Hiyya would be partial if he knew the identity of the petitioner, she disguises herself (as did the biblical Tamar, also a mother of twins; see below)[2], and — fully respecting the halakhic process — leads the rabbi to issue the response that suits her.

Sexual Arousal: Whose "Fault"?

While statements in the Mishnah describe the woman as the evil temptress and as easy to seduce, much anecdotal material that follows often suggests just the opposite: that it is men who are easily aroused and single-minded in pursuing release. One particular anecdote[3] mocks the complacency of men who believe that their involvement in Torah study places them above all temptation. Here, too, the disguise of a woman, brings home the point.

R. Hiyya bar Ashi made it a practice that when he fell down prostrate [at the end of the morning prayer], he would ask God to save him from his evil inclination [a reference to the sexual urge]. One day his wife overheard him and mused, but it is already several years that he has separated himself from me: why, then, does he find it necessary to keep making this supplication. Once, when he was studying in the garden, she disguised herself as a prostitute and paraded back and forth in front of him.

He asked her: Who are you? She answered: I am Haruta and have returned today. He propositioned her. She said to him: First bring me the pomegranate from the top of the tree. He jumped up and went and got it for her. When he came home [after his sexual encounter], his wife was lighting the oven. He went and sat inside [or on] it [in order to punish himself]. She said to him: But it was I. He paid her no attention until she brought [him] proof [the pomegranate]. [But he refused to be comforted] because he said that his intent, nonetheless, had been to commit a prohibited act. He tormented himself and fasted regularly until he died.

This story drives home the point that even the most pious and learned of men are involuntarily aroused when they gaze upon a woman. It also shows that the Talmud strenuously objects to sexual asceticism. This particular sage, who seemed to think that sexual relations in and of themselves were bad, had ceased sexual activity with his wife. But when a prostitute showed an interest in him, he immediately succumbed, even, remarkably, abandoning the Torah he was studying. While this story, like many others, convey that the very study of Torah can protect men from contemplated sexual misadventure, this story differs in that a woman speaks up about her sexual desires and needs; she is portrayed, not as evil temptress, but as a devoted, long-suffering, wise and assertive woman, who outsmarts her weak and simple-minded husband.

This anecdote, too, parallels the biblical story of Tamar who disguises herself to tactically outsmart Judah who has not fulfilled his obligation to her as a childless widow.[2] Judah refuses to arrange a levirate marriage with his third son for Tamar, his twice-widowed, childless daughter-in-law, yet he himself engages in sexual relations with her, thinking her a prostitute. Tamar first secures from him several personal items for future use. When her resulting pregnancy becomes known, he orders her burnt at the stake. She then sends him back his seal and cord to show him that it was he who impregnated her. (This biblical narrative is possibly a sophisticated spoof of the biased sex laws of the Ancient Near East.) In each of these two cases (R. Hiyya bar Ashi and Judah), the woman uses her disguise to chastise the man for his unethical behavior. In the biblical story, Judah praises Tamar for her clever and resolute act ion. In the Talmudic account, however, R. Hiyya never regains equanimity after having his hypocrisy exposed.


[1] Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 65b

Like the woman who came before R. Ammi and said to him, "Award me my marriage settlement" [meaning, I want a divorce because I am childless after ten years of marriage]. He said to her: "Leave; you are not obligated [to procreate and so you have no grounds for divorce. You are therefore not entitled to collect the marriage settlement]." She said to him: "In her old age, what will become of that woman [i.e., she herself]?" He responded: "In such a case we certainly force him [to divorce her and pay the settlement]."
A woman came before R. Nahman [asking for a divorce with payment of the marriage settlement after ten years of marriage and no children]. He said to her: "You are not obligated [to procreate and so you have no grounds for divorce. You are therefore not entitled to collect the marriage settlement]." She said to him: "Does not that woman [i.e., she herself] need a staff in her hand and a spade for burial [i.e., a child]? He said: "In a case like this, we certainly force him [to divorce her and pay the settlement]." [back]
[2] Genesis 38 [back]

[3] Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 81b [back]

Dr. Judith Hauptman, a well-known Talmudic scholar, is professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (New York).

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