Must Women Wear Perfume?

Scholars Look to Traditional Texts and Find Divergent Views of Women

By Judith Hauptman

Published May 09, 2003, issue of May 09, 2003.
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Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories

By Tikva Frymer-Kensky

Schocken Books, 446 pages, $28.95.

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Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature

By Judith R. Baskin

Brandeis University Press, 232 pages, $60.

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For a largely androcentric book, the Bible has more stories about women than one would expect. There are fewer female characters than male characters and, with minor exceptions, women do not fill political positions. They sheltered the spies who came to gather intelligence on Jericho and announced the advent of the kingship, but they did not lead their country into battle or govern their country. So why all the women-oriented stories?

In her wonderful new book, “Reading the Women of the Bible,” biblical scholar Tikvah Frymer-Kensky notes that important sections of Israelite history are bracketed by stories about women, an observation which leads her to the theory that the Bible’s redactor deliberately inserted a story about a woman when he wanted to signal the end of one era and the beginning of the next. The purpose of introducing a story about a powerless and marginalized woman at these junctures is to convey the message that Israel, too, as small and marginalized as it was, could be the bearer of God’s word to the world.

In this, as in other examples from her gem of a book, Frymer-Kensky, a professor of Hebrew Bible at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, reads a society through the prism of its treatment of women. She argues that the stories about women in the Bible have not been fully understood until now because commentators routinely examined each episode on its own — out of the context of other episodes and while ignoring the larger literary structures. Frymer-Kensky translates each tale anew, uncovers the plain-sense meaning of the words, notes the literary and structural features of each, comments on the art of the storyteller and traces the evolution of the story over time. She then rereads the stories in their broader literary context and in the context of ancient Near Eastern culture. Her lively and persuasive voice, animating vision and ingenious word plays all make this a gripping volume.

Frymer-Kensky also addresses contemporary concerns. One problem we face today, she notes, is trying to understand how a book that claims to lay the basis for a moral society can accept and even endorse the subordination of women. Her answer is that the Bible was enlightened for its time and place: Although it presents women as subordinate to men, it never sees them as inferior; it contains no misogynist statements, and it was not written to construct patriarchy but rather inherited it. Moreover, she argues, the idea of social revolution is integral to biblical thought. For example, when the concubine in Gibeah is raped and then butchered (Judges 19-21), Frymer-Kensky sees in the text not an endorsement of the hatred of women, as some think, but a condemnation of the political system that allowed such an event to occur. It comes to teach that this is what happens to women in the absence of a centralized political system.

I find the analysis of this story convincing, but her larger claim that the Bible views women as secondary to men but not inferior to them is less compelling. Can one really distinguish between the two? When women are consistently subordinate to men, as in marriage, is it not evident that the Bible considers them inferior? Frymer-Kensky further maintains that since the women of the Bible spend their time raising children, preparing food, singing and dancing at celebrations and keening at funerals, and not assuming positions of political leadership, the Bible is saying, loud and clear, that there are some things that men do and other things that women do, most likely because men and women are by nature different from each other. Is the absence of misogyny sufficient evidence of their “ontological parity,” as she suggests? I don’t think so. The burden of proof is on her to show that the Bible’s view of women’s nature differs from the Bible’s own description of women’s roles in a patriarchal society.

Still, Frymer-Kensky has provided us with the best reading of stories about women in the Bible yet. She applies her own analysis with brilliant results. We see the women and understand what they say and do in ways we never have before. Reading the Bible, any part of it, with a scholar of such breadth is invigorating.

In “Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature,” Judith Baskin delivers the opposite verdict on the portrayal of women in post-biblical rabbinic literature. In this religious corpus, Baskin writes, women’s voices are not heard. Even though rabbinic texts are multivocal, women’s otherness and innate inferiority predominate. In this book, Baskin, director of the Judaic studies program at the University of Oregon, attempts to demonstrate how women’s otherness and inferiority underlie and inform the midrashic tradition. (The term midrash, as used by Baskin, refers to the verse-based collections of rabbinic musings composed between the second century C.E. and the early middle ages.)

One of Baskin’s goals is to recover ancient rabbinic attitudes to women that became authoritative in informing subsequent Jewish values and practices. Because the rabbis saw women as “undesirably” different from men — i.e., as morally loose, prone to sorcery — they excluded women from full participation in most communal rituals and in the intellectual life of Judaism. The rabbis confined women to the home and to roles that enabled men to succeed in life. The long passage about Eve and the nature of women, from Genesis Rabbah, is her most telling and most damning text, portraying Eve, the archetypal woman, as essentially flawed:

And why must a woman use perfume, while a man does not need perfume? Man was created from earth and earth never putrefies, but Eve was created from a bone… [which after three days goes putrid].

Baskin meticulously and engagingly analyzes a whole array of midrashic texts in the context of related rabbinic texts and much contemporary scholarly commentary. She cites lengthy passages and analyzes them line by line, extrapolating from them larger messages. And to her credit, she frequently cites passages that upset her general theory. Though much of what she writes has already been noted elsewhere, Baskin’s contribution is to show us that these attitudes exist in the Aggada, the philosophical musings, and not just in Halacha, the legal pronouncements. This is important because the Aggada shapes how one thinks about an issue, in this case how men think about women, to this very day.

Still, Baskin’s contribution would have been greater had she taken one midrashic collection and compared its views of women to those of some other midrashic collection, let us say a somewhat later one or one deriving from a different geographic location, she would have contributed more. Since we have known for a long time that many rabbis over the ages have viewed women as lesser than men, what we now need to find out is how these ideas evolved, or perhaps devolved, over time and place and from author to author.

Frymer-Kensky and Baskin both address the ingrained patriarchy in texts from different periods, with the former attempting to exonerate the Bible while the latter rebukes rabbinic texts for their bias, claiming it lies at the base of women’s disenfranchisement in religious ritual and intellectual endeavor. The issue of how men think about and treat women continues to disturb our peace today. We should welcome these two voices. The final word has yet to be uttered.

Judith Hauptman, the E. Billi Ivry professor of Talmud and rabbinic culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is the author of “Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice” (Westview 1998).

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