“A woman is acquired [in marriage] in three ways…by money, by document, or by intercourse.” This is how the first mishnah in the tractate Kiddushin begins. In just this sentence alone we gain a window into how women were seen in the world of the rabbis. As each subsequent generation—from the Talmudic sages of 600 CE to 20th century feminist scholars—probe this Mishnah, the meaning of this statement is investigated, challenged, and, ultimately, transformed.
At first glance it seems clear that women are treated as objects that men are able to own. The ensuing Talmudic discussion in the first chapter of Kiddushin explores this idea and attempts to tease apart exactly how much agency a woman has or is entitled to in the process of betrothal. The fact that a woman can be acquired by money at all might lead us to think that she is within the designation of chattel. Indeed, land, goods and animals can also be acquired by purchase. It seems from this first phrase that women have no say in the matter and are therefore objects to be acted upon, rather than actors in their own right.
In her article Chattel or Person, Judith Romney Wegner pushes against the idea that women are always treated as chattel in rabbinic literature and instead argues that there are times, though limited, in which women are treated as people, with rights and agency. By exploring rabbinic texts through the lens of jurisprudence, she creates a more nuanced picture of women’s status in society; illustrating the shifting nature of women’s rights contingent on their legal status. Women are somewhere in between object and actor, depending on whether or not her agency threatens the power and authority of the men around her.
Supporting evidence for the idea that women were seen as non-actors in the rabbinic world is the lack of women’s voices in these texts. We learn from this Mishnah that women are acquired by men in three ways, but are told nothing of how she feels or thinks about this system. Charlotte Fonrobert provides an interesting framework for understanding this dynamic. In her chapter The Hermeneutics of Colors and Stains Fonrobert demonstrates how the Mishnaic authors take the biblical understanding of menstrual impurity in temporal terms (days of impurity from time of bleeding) and transform it into an impurity that is based on appearance (color of the blood). By changing the system in this way, Fonrobert, reading the text with a hermeneutics of suspicion, argues that the rabbis created a menstrual taxonomy over which they could be the authorities.
Viewing the mishnah through Fonrobert’s lens, it becomes glaringly apparent that an actual woman’s voice is not present in this text. Instead, we have male voices discussing the affect of male actions on women. Because a woman’s voice is not included, we are left to imagine her thoughts and actions. Just as in the case of menstrual impurity “women…are staged as the objects of interpretation,” so too in women’s actions regarding betrothal the lack of the woman’s voice allows the rabbis, and therefore us as the interpreters, to imagine her thoughts and reactions.
Examining this mishnah through the framework provided by Miriam Peskowitz in her article Spinning Tales: On Reading Gender and Otherness in Tannaitic Text, gives us yet another way to understand this text. According to Peskowitz, there is not a one-to-one match between rabbinic texts and history. Rather, these texts both construct and reflect the rabbinic perspective on gender. While Romney Wegner may makes assertions based on the legal code of this historical period, Peskowitz sees our Mishnah as one piece in the rabbinic project of shaping and perpetuating a certain gender mythology. Like Fonrobert, Peskowitz argues that, “Others are constructed by someone/some group with the power to effect cultural processes and with the power to declare others as Other.”
Peskowitz argues that these statements about gender put forth in the text serve not only as a window into the imagination of the text’s authors, but also as building blocks in the reification of particular notions of gender. As she writes, “If…the reification of roles and activities is one mechanism of domination, then we need to ascertain how certain notions about the roles, activities, and characters of men and women became reified at various historical moments.” Certainly the notion that women are simply agents to be acted upon is still alive in our culture today. By employing Peskowitz’s framework we can see this mishnah as an example of the way these notions about women and gender are created and reinforced by those in power.
In one particular section of the Talmudic discussion on this Mishnah, the rabbis try to tease out exactly how much money is needed to betroth a woman. One school of thought says that the amount is a dinar and the other says a prutah. In trying to figure out the reason for the discrepancy between these two answers, Rav Yosef reasons that dinar was related to the biblical monetary system—as the medieval commentator Rashi tells us, a dinar equals 1/8th of a biblical coin—while a prutah was a rabbinic form of money. Because the Mishnaic concept of acquiring a wife through purchase derives from the bible, Rav Yosef reasons that it was necessary to have a monetary amount that corresponded to the biblical system.
The fact that direct parallels can’t be made from the biblical to the rabbinic world in terms of money opens up the possibility that there may be other problems with trying to base our system of marriage—or of life in general, for that matter—strictly on these ancient texts.
When looked at in this way, Rav Yosef’s statement seems quite profound. There are things—be they something as simple as a prutah or as significant as gay marriage—that change from one generation, culture, or intellectual milieu to the next. Our world is constantly shifting and we are continually evolving as human beings. Reading Rashi poetically, just as the rabbinic monetary system is one-eight the biblical system, the present is one-eighth of the past. We carry with us a portion of the past but we are also created anew in each generation and so should strive to allow fresh ideas to come forth.
My hope for us all is that we may learn and give honor to these texts we are studying, carrying forward parts of the rabbinic system of betrothal and, at the same time, make space for and honor the ways in which we and our society have changed. In acknowledging this, may we create space for new notions of gender, sexuality, and marriage to come into being.