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Department of the Study of Religions

The Role and Representation of Women in Judaism

Course Code:
158000154
Unit value:
0.5
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Term 2

The course will examine the role and representation of women in Judaism from antiquity to modern times.

In the first part of the course images of women in the Bible, in Jewish Hellenistic literature, and in rabbinic sources shall be studied. Ancient society was a patriarchal society in which women were generally subordinated to their husbands and delegated to the private domain. This social structure had many consequences for women’s religious roles and practices.

In the Middle Ages a rabbinic orthodoxy developed which controlled all areas of daily life. For the life of Sephardic women in Spain, Portugal and North Africa the Cairo Geniza documents provide valuable source material with regard to women’s literacy and occupations. It seems that at the time when Jews lived under Islamic rule Jewish women’s education increased and they obtained a more prominent role in daily life. Amongst Ashkenazic Jews of Central and Eastern Europe women’s status depended on their husbands’ and fathers’ scholarly reputation, but women became the breadwinners and intermediaries between Jewish and non-Jewish society.

A number of scholars have stressed that after the French Revolution and Jewish Emancipation the ways in which women assimilated to European and American non-Jewish society differed in many regards from those of Jewish men. The late 19th century bourgeois ideal of the housewife reassigned women a place within the private sphere. Through synagogue sisterhoods and charitable organizations women could eventually obtain more influence on Jewish public life, but it was not until very recently that liberal Judaism permitted women to study for the rabbinate and to be ordained rabbis.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

At the end of the course, a student should be able to:

  • assess the role of Jewish women within the perspective historical, social, and economic contexts in which Jews lived
  • evaluate the relevant literary, autobiographical, and documentary sources to reconstruct Jewish women's lives
  • examine generational differences expressed in Jewish women's writing
  • discuss they ways in which rabbinic halakhah deals with women's issues
  • understand the role of gender differences in Jewish religious practice and thinking
  • analyse feminist approaches to Jewish Studies with regards to the alternative perspective they provide
  • analyse the views of Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist Judaism with regard to women's public role in the synagogue
  • write essay which critically assess and analyse the role and representation

Method of assessment

1 essay (2,500 words) (30%), 1 class presentation (10%), 2-hour exam (60%).

Suggested reading

  • Baskin, Judith (ed.) (1991, repr. 1998) Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
  • Biale, Rachel (1994) Women and Jewish Law: An Exploration of Women's Issues in Halakhic Sources, New York.
  • Grossman, Susan/Haut, Rivka (eds) (1992) Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue: A Survey of History, Halakhah, and Contemporary Realities, Philadelphia.