“An examination of biblical and talmudic sources does not reveal that women in particular practiced witchcraft”

An examination of biblical and talmudic sources does not reveal that women in particular practiced witchcraft.  On the contrary: sorcerers outnumber sorceresses in the sources.

It may be concluded, then, that the accusation of the practice of witchcraft leveled against women was no more than the reflection of prevailing contemporary beliefs and prejudices, and not an objective historical truth pertaining to Jewish women in antiquity.  If so, why were women suspected of practicing sorcery, and all of them at that?

It seems that the answer to this twofold question is to be sought in the social sphere, in the sexual politics of antiquity which decreed women’s inferiority.  Two possible explanations for the problem at hand will be proposed, both of which relate to the structure of ancient society; the two proposals, though perhaps incompatible, do complement each other: any inclusive categorization of women by men, especially such a severe accusation as the practice of witchcraft, is rooted in prejudice.  This is the only possible explanation for the categorical tone of this accusation, though it is not yet a solution to the problem.  The origin of the accusation that women practiced witchcraft is embedded in the very structure of male opinions about men’s superiority and women’s inferiority.  These opinions were not held by Jews alone, of course; harsh misogynist prejudices were rife among the gentiles of the period, even more so than among Jews.  In any case, the association of women with witchcraft was but a part of the overall process of the demonization of women, in which women were accused of consorting with the devil himself.  This example of men’s derogatory attitude towards woman is in keeping with their overriding suspicion of women as a threat to the “strong” sex.  The cause of such beliefs lies in the structure of traditional societies in which inequality between the sexes reigned, resulting in permanent tension.

Meir Bar-Ilan, “Sorceresses”, in Some Jewish Women in Antiquity (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1998), 125-126.