Today’s post will continue our series of summing up what Tal Ilan has described in her book and today we will examine what the ancient Jewish sources tell us about preserving a woman’s chastisty, another major concern in a patriarchal world concerned with purity and (to some degree) power.
First, there is the issue of hierarchy that it was believed was created for the world by God: men are to lead and rule over women. Thus: “Ten decrees were ordained … for Eve… The fourth is that her husband would rule over her” (ARNB 42). It was also believed that women, by cunning, sought at times to rule rather than to obey (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 13:431; 18:255). Ben Azzai ruled: “There are three whose life is no life at all: … everyone whose wife lords over him” (ARNA 25).
Second, sometimes there are moral judgments made in (what can only be called) a chauvinistic, sweeping fashion about women. Thus, women are
morally inferior (Ben Sira 42:14),
susceptible to sexual immorality (Test.Reuben 5:3),
deceitful (Josephus, Antiquities 5:294),
light-headed (bQiddushin 80b),
seductive (Sifre Deuteronomy 221),
penurious (Sifre Numbers 110),
gluttonous (mTohorot 7:9; tTohorot 8:16),
smelly and have squeaky voices and are sexually passive and dress differently (Genesis Rabbah 17:8).
Third, consequently, males were warned about women in two areas:
(1) Talking openly with women: “don’t talk too much with women” (mAbot 1:5) and those who do will inherit Gehenna. But clearly this means that talking too much can lead to seduction and sexual immorality (bNedarim 20a). While no law, the principle got even stricter over time: “A man should not speak with a woman in the market, even if she is his wife, much less another woman, because the public may misinterpret it” (ARNA 2).
(2) Looking at a woman: Ben Sira prohibits men from looking at any woman other than one’s wife (9:5; 41:21). Some warned men about the beauty of women (Test.Reuben 3:10-12; 4:1; Test.Judah 17:1; Test.Benjamin 8:2). “He who looks at a woman’s heels, it is as if he looked at ‘that place,’ and if he looks there, it is as if he had intercourse with her” (yHallah 2:4). Cf. Jesus at Matthew 5:27-28.
Fourth, to preserve chastity and to prevent sexual misconduct, some — and it is no longer possible to tell how many/often — restricted the movement of women. Some rabbis contend that if women didn’t go to the city they wouldn’t get raped (cf. Deuteronomy 22:23 and Sifre Deuteronomy 242). Since women were beautiful, they were to be kept at home (cf. Judith 8:4; tQiddushin 1:12; Ben Sira 42:11). R. Meir: a husband “allows his wife to speak with her siblings and neighbors” but a “wicked man” is one “who sees his wife go outside with her head uncovered… and she spins in public and bathes with men” (tSotah 5:9; bGittin 90a); tKetubot 7:6). But there is abundant haggadic evidence of women being public persons: they purchase in the markets, they traveled, and they went to Jerusalem for the feasts. It is possible that upper-class sages were able to restrict the movement of their wives; the poor women had to be part of the economy of the family.
Fifth, what about separate quarters for women? There is some archaeological evidence for separate women’s quarters in the homes of the upper-class; these would have been places for women to retire in their impurity and to shield them from contracting impurity to others.
Sixth, did women wear headcoverings? It is probable that women covered their heads in Jewish society. R. Ishmael: “a warning to the daughters of Israel, that they not go out with their heads ‘unbound’” (bKetubot 72a). Some women evidently didn’t unbind their hair even at home (yHorayot 3:5; bYoma 47a; ARNA 35). To humiliate a woman, her hair was unbound (Susanna 32; mSotah 1:5; mBaba Qamma 8:6). Women expressed destitution by cutting off their hair and selling it (Test.Job 22:3; 23:7-10; yShabbat 6:1; ySotah 9:16). The woman who anointed Jesus and washed his feet with her hair did something socially volatile (Luke 7:38; John 12:3). Wigs were worn: some wore them in order to conform to the law of binding hair while at the same time adorning themselves with beauty.