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Department of the Study of Religions

Judaism and Gender

Course Code:
15PSRH029
Unit value:
0.5
Year of study:
Any
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. 

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

On completion of the course students should be able to:

  • assess the role of Jewish women within the respective 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 the ways in which rabbinic halakhah deals with women's issues;
  • understand the role of Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist Judaism with regard to women's public role in the synagogue;
  • write essays which critically assess and analyse the role and representation of women in the studied textual sources

Scope and syllabus

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.

Method of assessment

Coursework: 1 essay of 5000 words (80%), 1 presentation outline (10%), 1 oral class presentation (10%)