Do you like riddles? I don’t, except for the ones that trick you into not seeing the obvious. Like this one: Who is always present but never mentioned? Most definitely a participant but rarely acknowledged? Who’s voice, though essential and vital, is almost never heard?
The answer, my friends, is Jewish women up until say, the 20th century. Before you jump with a few examples of great Jewish women and their achievements, I want to stress that I’m not talking here about the exceptional, the unusually bright and charismatic, the rare meteors who burst out of orbit and explode into the atmosphere, but the regular, ordinary, unremarkable women.
Jewish history is filled with texts which seek to organize and regulate everyday life, but you’d be hard pressed to find a woman’s voice, even in quotation, coming out of any of them. What this tells us is that in the distant and the not so distant past, the reality of individual women’s lives as they themselves might have told it was of little interest to the society they lived in. Their position, it seems to me, was similar to that of slaves in ancient Greece; indispensable for the smooth running of everyday activity, but otherwise irrelevant. (And clearly, the sympathetic, benevolent (though patronizing) approach to women in Judaism did little to mitigate this reality). Though this seems unacceptable to contemporary sensibility, it has been the norm for all human societies, a sort of universal law. It is we who have broken the spell; we are the rebels, endowed with the ability to see the potential of women’s lives with different eyes.
I’ve thought a lot about this, and about the fundamental differences in consciousness that these changes imply. How, I wondered, did the perception of women in our society differ from that of most of other societies in history? The writing of my first novel, The Wayward Moon was sort of a thought experiment. I imagined the lives of women in 9th century Babylonia. (Why that time and place? Well, that’s a subject for another essay). It seemed to me that the major differences between our society and theirs could be clustered around three issues:
1)Freedom of Movement – This varied from place to place, and depended to some extent on socio-economic status (the higher the family’s status, the more the women were expected to conceal themselves and stay put) but generally speaking, women of the middle east in the 9th century could not just get up and go. I’m not only talking about danger of being attacked, which in the days before police forces was a real possibility. The mere idea of a woman travelling anywhere on her own was unthinkable. Women’s movements were monitored and curtailed under the anxious eyes of their parents, husbands and brothers. The entire issue of when and how a woman might show herself in public was a going concern. In some places, the only women who would walk freely in a public space was a prostitute. No wonder it was considered a shame for the entire family if one of its female members was out unchaperoned.
2) The Right to Education – A very modern right, which even today, in some parts of the world, cannot be taken for granted by either men or women. Up till a few generations ago, education was a rare luxury. Still, in the Jewish community throughout the ages, and most certainly in 9th cen. Babylonia, most boys did receive a biblical/Talmudic education, with some learning to read Hebrew/Aramaic. Not the girls. Although Islamic society (and this includes Jewish society within the Islamic society) at this time was interested in exploring and expanding on the knowledge of other cultures, you can be sure that the girls were not included in the fun.
3) Mastery of One’s Own Physicality- Throughout history, various religions and philosophies have argued that the physical is entirely separate from the spiritual, but modern psychology tells us that it’s all about the body. The body is where we experience the world, and our place in it. In this light, the fact of women’s powerlessness over their own physical destiny is particularly nefarious. But the facts are these: in most societies, a women’s sexual life was closely managed by others, with her virginity not merely a physical detail, but a state of being which had serious ramifications for her entire family. A woman was not at liberty to choose the person she was to marry, or her age at her marriage, or the time in her own life that she was to marry. Consequently, her first sexual experience was generally her wedding night, at a time and with a man not of her own choosing. Likewise, no one asked her if, when and how often she wanted to get pregnant. Outrageous as all of this seems now, the price for rebelling against these norms was dangerously high. Women were not owners but slaves to their own biology, and they were expected to put their physical being at the disposal of the needs, plans, and wishes of others.
From our perspective, these limitations sound pretty miserable. But how, I wondered, did they seem to the people who had to live with them? While it’s tempting for us to insist with our enlightened, self-righteous certainty that each woman would have her own unique opinion on the subject, the answer has more to do with the nature of the society in question than individual personality. As David Foster Wallace has pointed out, society is like water – so ubiquitous that we scarcely know it’s there, chiseling our perception and shaping our consciousness.*
When I was writing The Wayward Moon, I was imagining what life might be like for a young woman living in a society that denies her freedom of movement, education, and mastery of her own body. And what I came to realize was that generally speaking, these limitations were no problem at all. No freedom of movement? Who wants to go anywhere, when life is best at home. No education? Books are only interesting to a few really smart men, silly! No deciding who to marry? Why should I decide when there are others who are so much better equipped to make a good choice? No control over who I sleep with? What am I, a whore? A decent woman sleeps only with her husband.
The Wayward Moon was kind of a thought experiment. I imagined an ordinary Jewish woman, entirely at home in her time and place, which in this case, was a thriving Babylonian town at the height of the Islamic empire. And then I imagined what would happen if she had to leave that place, and make her way in the world alone. She would, I knew, be incredibly vulnerable, easy prey for anyone who took notice of her. But what if, on the other hand, fate forced her to experience freedom of movement? What if she were taken under the wing of a mentor and given instruction in theology and philosophy? And what if, after having been raped and abused, she allowed herself to discover her own sexuality, on her own terms?
These are the questions that I wanted to explore. I wanted think about what happens when a consciousness expands, so that it sees wider and farther and deeper than others, but lacks the language with which to express what it sees.
In imagining Rahel Bat Yair, I tried to give voice to a character who would seem both entirely imaginary and very real. I created certain conditions for her, and then envisioned what might happen. Would Rahel come to think a little more like we do? Would she somehow find a new way of being in the world? Or would she find that the world could not contain what she had become?
Happily, I’m not a scientist but an author, with an author’s freedom to create my experiments’ results.
*If you’re not familiar with David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005 it would be worth your while to read the whole thing. Others have considered it so worthwhile that it’s been published as a book, but here are some links where you can read it online.