Marriage and Family

June 14, 2010
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Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature by Gail Labovitz, Rowman and Littlefield, 2009, 289 pp, $50.00.

Levirate Marriage and the Family in Ancient Judaism by Dvora E. Weisberg, Brandeis University Press, 2009, 246 pp, $70.00.

Reviewed by Leonard Gordon

Kristina Grish’s confident assertion in Boy Vey! The Shiksa’s Guide to Dating Jewish Men, that Jewish men are “generous and thoughtful, thanks to a matriarchal culture that taught them to appreciate women’s strength … and intelligence” resonates as a cultural stereotype. By contrast, the scholar smiles at the presumption of any such entity as “Jewish men,” instead identifying an evolving concept so plastic and contingent as to be virtually meaningless. The two new books reviewed here, Gail Labovitz’s Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature and Dvora Weisberg’s Levirate Marriage and the Family in Ancient Judaism, are the work of scholars. This newest generation of rabbinic scholarship revisits the texts of ancient Judaism and exposes the origin of some of our most abiding and egregious prejudices.

Both of these works were published with the support of the Hadassah-Brandeis Research Institute on Jewish Women; the authors reference one another, and both focus on rabbinic literature to question the underpinnings of modern Judaism’s support for the so-called traditional family. Despite these important points of connection, these are very different projects. Labovitz’s close textual analyses emerge from the intersection of linguistic theory and Jewish studies. She forces a confrontation with a metaphoric constellation in rabbinic literature that has abiding consequences for gender roles in marriage. Weisberg, who traces the fate of biblical legislation that requires a man to marry his deceased brother’s childless wife (levirate marriage) through different rabbinic traditions, excavates an early history of one aspect of Jewish marriage and family.

Evoking speech act theory, Labovitz reminds us that language is so pervasively metaphoric that entrenched metaphoric systems become invisible. These metaphors are, however, not benign. For example, the fact that English speakers think about differences of opinion in terms of war (arguments have winners and losers; we marshal evidence and attack one another’s position), has consequences for how we behave and feel when we disagree. Analyzing the texts addressing marriage as kinyan, the purchase of the wife by the husband, Labovitz brings the reader to recognize that this underlying premise of Jewish marriage has a range of enduring implications, from a wife’s lack of control over the fruits of her labor to women’s exclusion from the realm of Torah study.

Labovitz persuasively disputes earlier apologetic characterizations of rabbinic thought and legislation as expanding the freedom and autonomy of women. Instead, she underscores the value and necessity of developing alternative metaphors to replace the classic ones, as author/scholar Rachel Adler does, in constructing new marriage rituals that might better promote the egalitarian relationships to which many Jews aspire.

Weisberg asks what we can learn about rabbinic family values by looking at the extreme situation of levirate marriage (classically articulated in law in Deuteronomy 25:5-10). Here we have a marriage between two partners that under other circumstances would have been seen as incestuous, a perfect case for the early rabbis, who relished the opportunity for the legal gamesmanship offered by marginal cases. Making reference to anthropological data on family relations in a diverse array of cultures, Weisberg finds that the rabbis overturn the Bible’s preference for levirate marriage of release (halitzah), valorizing the needs of the living (including the preferences of the widow) over the claims of the dead. Moreover, Weisberg finds in the history of levirate marriage evidence for a rabbinic preference for the nuclear over the extended family. The smaller unit of wife, husband, and child is given primacy as interpretations that might widen the definition of family are gradually rejected.

It is not an accident that these new forays into rabbinic literature come at a time when we can no longer entertain long popular myths about the stable Jewish family: Jewish husbands do not drink or batter, and Jewish women are devoted, if overbearing, mothers. In the face of increasing divorce rates, as well as a surge among affiliating Jews who come from households that do not conform to antiquated idealizations, in a world of blended families, interfaith and multifaith families, interethnic adoption, fluid gender identity, diverse and changing sexual identities, and polyamorous unions, these myths are weakening. As early as 1989, David Kraemer’s anthology, The Jewish Family: Metaphor and Memory demonstrated diversity in Jewish families from rabbinic to modern times. We learned about wealthy women who farmed out childrearing to facilitate their work lives and about the “slave girl syndrome” impacting medieval Jewish families.

Weisberg extends this historical research in her informative history of levirate marriage.  Labovitz advances the project to a new level, revealing, through her readings, false dichotomies in our thought processes themselves.

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