Monday, June 23, 2008

Rashi's Daughters, revisted.

Okay, okay. Let me explain myself.

In this post, I issued my irritation at the perpetuation of Rashi's daughters as a true, factual set of events in history, whereas in truth it is merely a legend developed with no factual documentation beyond it's first appearance in the 18th century. However, I never said that there are no factual instances of women donning tefillin or studying Talmud or being learned in the ways of halakah or Judaism.

There are many instances of this, including that Michal, daughter of King Saul, donning tefillin. In Eruvin in the Talmud there is also notation that "Michal daughter of Kushi wore tefillin and the sages did not protest." Likewise, the wife of Chaim ibn Attar and the Maiden of Ludmir (19th century) also were known to have practiced this mitzvah.

To be sure, tefillin is not prohibited for women. You see, it's a time-bound mitzvah to which women are not held. However, this does not necessarily mean it is prohibited. Some sages, including Rashi and the Rambam said that it was completely acceptable, but that women were not to say the b'racha (blessing), because the "who has commanded us" would not apply. Specifically, the Rambam says, "Women, slaves, and minors are exempt from tzitzit from the Torah ... women and slaves who want to wrap themselves in tzitzit may do so without a berakha. And so too with other such mitzvot from which women are exempt: if they want to perform them without a berakha, one does not protest" (Hilkhot Tsitsit 3:9).

My point in all of this is that there is a difference between historical documentation of women -- plain or semi-important or even great women -- donning tefillin or writing responsa or studying Talmud and Rashi's daughters doing these things. Why is this? Well, Rashi is perhaps one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time, and I don't think anyone would disagree with me there. There is much more weight, as such, put into the stories of his daughters being this great liberating, free thinking women of the 11th century than of perhaps any other women of the 11th century doing these things. It's about influence, reputation.

In all things we seek out the best, most reliable source of information if we are preparing to do something. It is why there is a ladder, so to speak, in just about every aspect of life. We seek out the most reliable mechanic on how to fix our cars, we go to the best doctors we can find to seek the best treatment for our ailments, we take our ques from those with the best reputation and we rely on them to not lead us astray.

Hopefully this makes sense. I am not rallying for or against women donning tefillin, really. It isn't for me, but I appreciate that it is completely permissible for women to do so. I just think that when the debates arise about women studying Talmud or doing nontraditional (for women) mitzvot, it shouldn't always come back to "Well, Rashi's daughters did it!" because we know that this has no factual history to it before the 18th century -- hundreds of years after the fact.

I do agree, though, with those supporters of the Rashi's daughters legend, that Rashi's daughters are important and significant in the history of Jewish women, it gives us inspiration and hope, but I just want it to be clear in the same vein, that this is a legend and like all great legends, there is room for error.

As David Mikkelson, who runs, once said, "...our willingness to accept legends depends far more upon their expression of concepts we want to believe than upon their plausibility."