Desirable But Dangerous: Rabbis Daughters in the Babylonian Talmud

Dvora Weisberg from Hebrew Union College writes:

In classical rabbinic literature, women are an anomaly. Rabbinic law sometimes treats women like persons and at other times like chattel.1 Non-legal texts some times characterize women in positive terms and portray individual women as having excellent qualities; at other times, the texts speak of women disparagingly.2 Some rabbinic texts recognize the inherent humanity of women, portraying them as intelligent, moral and spiritually inclined. Others treat women as the quintessential Other, assigning women fewer rights and responsibilities than men and offering them little or no access to Torah.

* …rabbinic literature displays some suspicion, and occasionally outright distaste, for learned women. The Babylonian Talmud contains stories of women who used their knowledge of Torah to subvert the law or to disparage men.8 While the study of Torah helps make men righteous, it offers no such assurances for women. In fact, it may have the opposite effect. At least one rabbi warns fathers against teaching Torah to their daughters, claiming that for women, the study of Torah leads to lewdness.9 While most women were unlikely to be exposed to Torah study in their everyday lives, the rabbi s daughter lives in an atmosphere permeated by Torah; her informal exposure to Torah is certain.

* rabbis were not sanguine about their ability to reproduce themselves, that is, their Torah, through biological reproduction.16 One “solution” was to reproduce oneself by “begetting” students. Male students are seen as an alternative to (disappointing) male offspring. Rabbis’ daughters, on one hand, are even less useful than sons in ensuring continuity, both because they leave the family upon marriage and because they do not study and cannot teach Torah to their sons. On the other hand, rabbis can marry
their daughters to their students, allowing them a way to bring a promising student “into the family,” making him an honorary son through marriage as well as through shared study.

* When daughters do appear in the biblical narrative, their presence often highlights the vulnerability of their father’s position in society. Lot’s offer of his daughters to the mob at Sodom underscores his vulnerability as a newcomer to Sodom.22 The rape of Dinah and her brothers’ subsequent attack on the town of Shechem force Jacob to confront his small numbers and lack of protection from his neighbors.23 David’s inability to control his sons is demonstrated by his lack of response to the rape of his daughter Tamar by her brother Amnon; David is “upset,” but takes no action.2

Daughters are also portrayed as conduits bringing grief and trouble to their fathers. Lot commits incest with his daughters; the marriage of Laban’s daughters results in his losing much of his wealth to Jacob. Jephthah blames his daughter for the consequences of his rash vow, exclaiming, “Alas, daughter! You have brought me low; you have become my troubler.”25
Pre-rabbinic Jewish sources recognize a daughter as a source of anxiety to her father. Ben Sira describes all of the stages of a girl’s life as fraught with tension — for her father.

“A daughter keeps her father secretly wakeful and worry over her robs him of sleep; when she is young, lest she do not marry, or if married lest she be hated; while a virgin, lest she be defiled or become pregnant in her father’s house; or having a husband, lest she prove unfaithful, or, though married, lest she be barren.”26

Ben Sira advises fathers to “keep strict watch over a headstrong daughter lest she make you a laughingstock to your enemies, a byword in the city… and put you to shame.”

* Perhaps in part to control or minimize the danger that is inherent in a daughter, rabbinic law grants a father extensive authority over his daughter while she is a minor.30 He owns anything she finds or earns. He may annul her vows. He is authorized to betroth her.31 The father may sell his daughter as a servant.32 If she is seduced or raped, he collects the fines for the injury.33The fathers authority ends when his daughter marries. The rights and authority of the father are transferred to a husband at the time of marriage.

* The rights accorded to the father are not balanced by responsibilities towards his daughter. A father is not legally required to support his daughter during his lifetime.36Daughters are entitled to support from their fathers estate after his death,37 but they are not their fathers’ heirs unless they have no brothers.38 The father s extensive rights over his daughter and the absence of paternal responsibilitysibility toward daughters leads Judith Romney Wegner to conclude that the legal status of a minor daughter “is barely distinguishable from chattel.”

* Many rabbinic texts portray Gentiles as dangerous to Jews. Captivity is an extreme form of danger. It is seen as particularly threatening to the chastity of Jewish women. Perhaps our story reflects the rabbis’ fears that Jewish women
will, at some point in captivity, “willingly” submit to their captors, rendering themselves “forbidden” (or at least less desirable) to their husbands when they are rescued.91 We might read this story as an expression of rabbinic anxiety about
resuming marital relations with a wife who has been a captive.

* A girl who is in captivity before her third birthday is still presumed to be a virgin for purposes of fixing her marriage settlement, but a girl who is a captive after her third birthday is treated like a woman who is presumed to have had sexual intercourse; her marriage settlement is half of that assigned to a virgin. Whether or not intercourse actually
took place, the girl’s status is permanently altered by her captivity; she is less desirable on the marriage market.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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