Rabbis thinking of the Gendering of the Body

Rabbinic legal thinking, which provides much of the structural framework of subsequent Jewish cultures, aims first and foremost at instituting a rather pronounced dual gender grid, imposed on the social organization of Jewish society as the rabbis envisioned it. Most of the individual laws of rabbinic halakhah apply to either men or women. Differently put, in rabbinic legal thinking it is almost always important whether the halakhic agent is a man or a woman.

Representations of the body are an important means for grounding gender, and for justifying the distribution of legal privileges and disadvantages. As theorists of gender have come to recognize, representations of the body often serve the aim of naturalizing and therefore legitimizing legal privilege. Hence, so the theory goes, almost everyone may agree now that gender differences are cultural constructs. Gender is variable, and gender differences are scripted differently in different social and cultural contexts. But the fact that gender differences exist to begin with is traditionally considered to be based in biological fact. Nature – or biology – has made bodies different, male and female, and different cultures only inscribe this reality with their specific ways of differentiating between genders. In the rabbinic case, this translates, for instance, into the prohibition of cross-dressing, inherited from biblical law (Deuteronomy 22:5), in order to uphold the clear distinction between the sexes. Or it famously translates into the general positioning of men as always “obligated” by Jewish law, while women are only sometimes obligated and mostly “exempt” (M. Kiddushin 1:7), a legal rhetoric that already early feminists have recognized as a way of privileging the male position in Jewish law.

Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, “Regulating the Human Body: Rabbinic Legal Discourse and the Making of Jewish Gender,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, eds. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee (Cambridge & New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 271.

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