Rereading the Sources: New Visions of Women in Medieval Ashkenaz
Baskin, Judith R. (University of Oregon)
Textures and Meanings: Thirty Years of Judaic Studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst (2006)
Considering the consequences of gender is a significant development in recent Jewish historiography. While historians of previous eras tended to assume that social circumstances and historical transformations affected the two sexes similarly, gender analysis has shown that this is often far from the case. In this paper I discuss three areas in which employing gender as a category of analysis expands our understandings of the lives of Jewish women in medieval Ashkenaz. In my first example, I discuss how Jewish women were objectified as occasions of sexual sin by the Hasidei Ashkenaz, the pietists of twelfth and thirteenth century Germany. My second analysis examines the personal testimonies of R. Eleazar ben Judah of Worms (d. 1238) to demonstrate how Ashkenazi Jewry constructed gender roles that empowered women in the economic and domestic spheres while privileging men’s intellectual undertakings. Finally, I describe how medieval Jewish women developed strategies through their bodies to overcome limitations inherent in Jewish legal teachings. In each case, using gender as a category of analysis yields new insights into the social history of medieval Jewish women and men and their ways of functioning separately and together in an inhospitable and uncertain environment.