A Step-by-Step Guide to Research on Jewish Women

Dina Ripsman Eylon

Step 1: Biblical Women

The Sources:

The term 'biblical women' refers to the women mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (also known as the Old Testament). The following are the best translations of the Hebrew Bible available in English:

  1. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Edited by Metzger, Bruce M., and Roland E. Murphy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

  2. Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures [The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text]. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985.

The Data:

Women's role in the Hebrew Bible is, as might be expected, marginal and limited. Tikva Frymer-Kensy claims that learning about biblical women is about "recognizing Patriarchy." Belonging to a patriarchal society, Jews believe that they are the descendents of three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to whom the Book of Genesis is devoted. They also believe that they are the descendents of four Matriarchs: Sarah, Rebekah (Rivka), Leah and Rachel. But living in a patriarchal community also means that women were the possession of men; they first belonged to their fathers and then to their husbands. They rarely, if ever, owned land or participated in economic decisions. Nevertheless, in addition to the stories about the four matriarchs, we find some accounts of women prophets, judges and queens. Surprisingly, two full texts (books) of the bible are dedicated to women heroes: Ruth and Esther. Alice Bach in her recent book, entitled Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader, has compiled a list of major female characters in the bible. I have modified the list and arranged it according to their appearance in the Hebrew Bible:

Eve (the first woman mentioned in the bible) - - - - Genesis 2-4
Sarah and Hagar - - - - Genesis 16, 20
Lot's daughters - - - - Genesis 19
Rebekah - - - - Genesis 26
Leah and Rachel - - - - Genesis 28-33
Dinah - - - - Genesis 34
Tamar - - - - Genesis 38
The Wife of Potiphar - - - - Genesis 39
Shiprah and Puah - - - - Exodus 1-2
Miriam - - - - Exodus 15; Numbers 11-12
Acsah - - - - Judges 1
Deborah and Jael - - - - Judges 4-5
Jephthah's daughter - - - - Judges 11-12
The Bride of Samson - - - - Judges 13-14
Delilah - - - - Judges 16
Levite's concubine - - - - Judges 19-20
Hannah and Pennina - - - - 1 Samuel 1-2
Michal - - - - 1 Samuel 17; 2 Samuel 6
Abigail - - - - 1 Samuel 25
Medium of Endor - - - - 1 Samuel 28
Bathsheba - - - - 2 Samuel 11-12; 1 Kings 1-2
Tamar - - - - 2 Samuel 13
Rizpah - - - - 2 Samuel 21
Jezebel - - - - 1 Kings 16-21; 2 Kings 9
The Playmate of God - - - - Proverbs 8
Vashti - - - - Esther 1-2

Many names of women are briefly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, mainly to identify genealogies.

Secondary Sources:

In this section I will mention names of modern women scholars who have contributed extensively to the research of biblical women. Their works should be available in major libraries and bookstores. To locate these works use a library catalogue, Books in Print and/or major periodical indexes, especially those dedicated to religion. If you live in a remote rural area use your library's interlibrary loan services, or use the Internet to order your desired books.

The following list of scholars is not conclusive and should be considered as just a starting point: Alice Bach, Phyllis Bird, Athalya Brenner, Leila Bronner, Adela Y. Collins, Cheryl J. Exum, Elisabeth Shcüssler Fiorenza, Carole R. Fontaine, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Esther Fuchs, Carol Meyers, Carol A, Newsom, Alicia Ostriker, Letty M. Russell, Regina Schwartz, and Phyllis Trible.

Related Links:

  1. Aishet Chayil - Women of Valor

  2. Diotima Materials for the study of women and Gender in the Ancient World

  3. Introductory Readings for the Study of Judaism in the Greco-Roman Period
    A general malestream bibliography on the period.

  4. And Adam Knew Eve: A Dictionary of Sex in the Bible

  5. Eve and Adam Online Resources

  6. Witches in the Bible and in the Talmud

Step 2: Talmudic Women

Primary Sources:

The term "talmudic women" refers to women mentioned in the Mishnah, Talmud, and midrashic works, often called 'rabbinic or talmudic literature'. The body of literature involved is huge and presumed to be assembled in the first millennium. It includes the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Palestinian Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud, the Extracanonical Tractates, the Halakhic Midrashim, the Exegetical Midrashim, the Homiletic Midrashim, Midrashim on the Five Megillot and other Exegetical and Aggadic works. Most of these works were translated into English, and are available in Jewish bookstores, major libraries and by special orders. A popular English translation is the Soncino edition, of which a searchable CD-ROM is also available.

Secondary Sources:

The best introduction to this complex corpus:

Strack, H. L. and G. Stemberger. Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. Translated by Markus Bockmuehl. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992. This excellent book deals with all aspects of the writings, including extensive bibliographies featuring the latest works in the field.

The Data:

The Talmudic literature is traditionally regarded as the compilations of the Jewish Oral Law in antiquity. The term 'Oral Law' refers to rules and regulations practiced in the Jewish community of the time as direct or indirect interpretations of the Written Law, the Hebrew Bible.

Women's role in these texts is again marginal. There are no women rabbis [scholars] or community leaders. Several women are mentioned by name, but they are usually the rabbis' daughters or wives. The only exception to this is the sections dealing with sexuality and family matters, including matrimonial laws.

Two websites contain English selections on family and gender issues from the Talmudic literature:

  1. Talmud: A Cybercourse by R. Sidney Slivko, Jewish University in Cyberspace

  2. WebShas Learning Online
    Search the index for Family Issues.

Research on the Talmudic literature is still in its infancy and feminist examinations of these writings are even scarcer. Noteworthy is Rachel Biale's book entitled Women and the Jewish Law: The Essential Texts, Their History, and Their Relevance for Today. New York: Schocken Books, (1984), 1995. Look also for books and articles by the following scholars: Jacob Neusner, Judith Romney Wegner, Judith Baskin, Judith Hauptman, Eliezer Berkovits, Leonard Swindler, Daniel Boyarin, Meir Bar-Ilan, Blu Greenberg, Shulamit Valler, and Tal Ilan.

Related Links:

  1. The Judaica Bibliography by Mark A. Christian, Divinity Library, Vanderbilt University

  2. Webshas Family Issues

  3. Internet FAQ Consortium - soc.culture.jewish FAQ: Torah and Halachic Authority (3/12)

Step 3: Medieval Jewish Women

Primary Sources:

Even though the Middle Ages is often called the Dark Ages, for Judaism it was a period of prolific writing when hundreds of manuscripts and books of religious and secular nature were produced. Most of the literature was written in Hebrew, but some was written in Arabic, Latin and other languages. Unfortunately, only a very small portion has been translated into English.

The Post-Talmudic era begins with the Gaonic literature (c. 690-1100 C.E.), which was composed by various Geonim ("geniuses", rabbis) who lived in Babylon (Iraq), Egypt and North Africa. They corresponded with laypersons and peers from different parts of the world, offered their advice on Halakhic matters (Jewish Law), and wrote biblical and halachic commentaries.

The next period extends from the eleventh century C.E. to the fifteenth century. Rashi, Maimonides and Nachmanides were the major literary figures of this period, but dozens of other rabbis, Kabbalists, philosophers and poets contributed to the corpus of medieval Jewish writings.

Worth noting is the Code of Jewish Law, also known as Shulchan Aruch (Set Table), written by a Sephardic rabbi, Joseph Caro, who lived in Safed c.1560. Sephardic Jews follow this collection of religious rules, regulations and customs to this day. Ashkenazi Jews follow the rulings and comments to this work, which were written by Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Cracow (Rema).

A large part of the medieval Jewish literature consists of the Responsa (She'elot u-teshuvot, questions and answers). "Responsa are the responses of Torah scholars to questions of Jewish Law posed to them both by [laypersons] and experts. These scholars apply the law and philosophy of Judaism to the changing circumstances of Jewish life [from] technological and social innovations to medical issues and other aspects of contemporary living," not covered by the Laws in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmudic literature.

Secondary Sources:

General secondary sources on Jews in the Middle Ages are as extensive as the above primary sources. However, research on Jewish women of this period is scanty, at best. A good bibliography on medieval Jewish women is available on the Internet [see Related Links]. Two excellent books feature a number of medieval Jewish women and a glimpse into their writings:

    Henry, Sondra and Emily Taitz. Written Out of History: Our Jewish Foremothers. Sunnyside, NY: Biblio Press, 1990.

    Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality: A Sourcebook. Edited by Ellen M. Umansky and Diane Ashton. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

The Data:

During the Middle Ages Jewish women, like their non-Jewish contemporaries, were denied access to formal education. Yet, overwhelming evidence indicates that many Jewish women were literate enough to become scribes (copyists), preachers, poets, writers and publishers. The most remarkable example is Donna Gracia Mendes Nasi (1510-1569), a powerful, enigmatic Marrano woman who was one of the wealthiest people of her time. Her life and adventures could be the material for an interesting historical novel. She valued Jewish education, financed it, and saved many Jewish refugees from persecution in Portugal and Spain. Other noteworthy women are Rebecca Tiktiner (d. 1550), a great poet who wrote in Hebrew what could be called today Zionist poems, and Glückel of Hamlen (1646-1724) whose memoirs are still available in English translation.

Research on medieval Jewish women is based on their few surviving manuscripts and books. As in the previous periods we discussed in the earlier parts of this guide, it is also based on documents dealing with family, matrimonial and sexual issues. These could be found to a certain extent in the Responsa. As very few of these documents were translated into English, secondary sources, such as books and articles dealing with the issues, could be very helpful to English speakers.

Related Links:

  1. Medieval Jewish Women in History, Literature, Law, and Art: An Annotated Bibliography

  2. Introduction: On Jewish Women's Writings

  3. Internet Medieval Sources: Selected Sources on Jewish Life

  4. Barcelona Jewish Court Documents: A Daughter's Inheritance, 1293.

  5. Post-Talmudic Jewish Sources

Step 4: Contemporary Jewish Women

Things look much better when we examine the state of research on contemporary Jewish women. There is no need for a formal division between primary and secondary sources, and materials are becoming plentiful as we speak. Thousands of Jewish women activists in all areas of life write and publish, and this profusion is a glee for all researchers and scholars. In this short article I list a number of key publications, helpful to both laypersons and experts. The list is restricted to English publications. However, works in other languages are increasing as well.

An excellent reference tool, published quite recently, is Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Edited by Paula E. Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. Hyman and Dash Moore's two illustrated volumes are an indispensable account of the history of Jewish women in North America since 1654. As the twentieth century's most comprehensive study on contemporary Jewish women, it contains 800 biographical entries and 110 topical entries, such as Hadassah, Women's American ORT, and Zionism. Entries cover "information on American Jewish women in all fields of endeavor, including everyday life." 506 photographs illustrate the entries and selected bibliographies follow each entry. Phyllis Holman Weisbard compiled an annotated bibliography and a guide to archival sources. [This bibliography is also available on-line. See Related Links.]

In addition to using the general catalogues and periodical indexes, two printed bibliographies feature annotated entries on Jewish women, covering topics, such as history, religious life and law, the USA and Canada, Israel and other countries, the Holocaust and poetry:

    The Jewish Woman: An Annotated Selected Bibliography, 1900-1985 (with a supplement for 1986). 2nd edition. Aviva Cantor with Ora Hamelsdorf. Biblio Press, 1987.

    The Jewish Woman: An Annotated Selected Bibliography, 1986-1993: (With 1994-1995 Recent Titles List). Edited by Ann S. Masnik and Doris B. Gold. Compiled by Marcia Cohn Spiegel. Fresh Meadows, New York: Biblio Press, 1996.

With the on-line bibliographies, which are conveniently listed in the Related links below, I hope you'll find your preliminary research on Jewish women revealing and rewarding. Let me know how useful this series of articles have been for your specific research.

Related Links:

The following bibliographies are featured in our various issues:

  1. Jewish Women's Voices, Past & Present

  2. Jewish Women in the Bible and Antiquity

  3. Bibliography of Jewish Women's Resources

  4. Annotated Bibliography and Guide to Archival Resources on the History of Jewish Women in America

  5. Bibliography Covering the Agunah Problem, Jewish Marriage, Jewish Divorce, and Related Issues

  6. Bibliography of Sources on Sexual and Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community

  7. Bibliography: By, For, and/or about Jewish Lesbian/Bisexual Women

  8. Internet Women's History Sourcebook
    An excellent site for comparative research.

Now you're ready to use the recommended Internet Sources for the Study of Jewish Women

© 2002 Women In Judaism Inc.
this page last updated on: 7/23/02
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