Just Because Some Rabbinic Texts are Androcentric Doesn’t Mean There Aren’t (Or Can’t Be) Gynocentric Correlates

Talmud Tuesdays - DrewsViewsWhen it comes to reading rabbinic literature (Mishnah, Talmud, etc.), the androcentrism of the Rabbis does not often seem like such an issue as much as it does when they discuss women, relationships, and sex. Not infrequently, I come up against this issue when I lead discussions on such texts and they present their own issues. However, I believe, that is not the end of the conversation and does not have to be discouraging. I want to take a few examples of texts I have taught and discuss some avenues that could be explored with them in this vein.

1) I recently led a discussion  (actually another one, as well) the text from pirkei avot that goes through one’s lifecycle (mAvot 5:21):

הוא (יהודה בן תימא) היה אומר
בן חמש שנים למקרא
בן עשר למשנה
בן שלש עשרה למצות
בן חמש עשרה לתלמוד
בן שמונה עשרה לחופה
בן עשרים לרדוף
בן שלשים לכח
בן ארבעים לבינה
בן חמשים לעצה
בן ששים לזקנה
בן שבעים לשיבה
בן שמונים לגבורה
בן תשעים לשוח
בן מאה כאילו מת ועבר ובטל מן העולם

Except that, on a deeper reading, it really seems to be describing a man’s lifecycle (which would explain why each line begins with בן (son)). Although the most glaring example would be 13 for bar mitzvah, one wonders if the girls in the time of the Mishnah were expected to go through the learning cycle at 5, 10, and 15, as perhaps the boys may have been. Let’s take this mishnah as being androcentric: by men, for men, about men. Ostensibly, this could present a problem for women readers of this text. What might a gynocentric version be? While I don’t have a full answer, I do think one piece of it would be something along biological lines of menstruation at some point and the end of fertility at another point. Also, just as men have בינה and עיצה at 40 and 50, one wonders if the same would be for women or if there would be something different.

2) Another text which is always interesting is the following text in the Mishnah (mKetubbot 5.5):

המדיר את אשתו מתשמיש המיטה: בית שמאי אומרין, שתי שבתות; בית הלל אומרין, שבת אחת
התלמידים יוצאים לתלמוד תורה שלא ברשות, שלושים יום; והפועלים, שבת אחת
עונה האמורה בתורה: הטיילים, בכל יום; הפועלים, שתיים בשבת; החמרים, אחת בשבת; הגמלים, אחת לשלושים יום; הספנים, אחת לשישה חודשים, דברי רבי אליעזר

While I have heard this text pointed to as an example of how Rabbinic Judaism has sought to place the onus of sexual provision on the husband and not on the wife, in truth, this is an androcentric text. Yes, men are not supposed to withhold their sexual provision from their wives for such a long time. However, what would be the gynocentric correlate? Would it be the same? Less? Are they supposed to be more available? We don’t know, but we can speculate.

3) For a third example, we turn to a beraita involving Rabbi Meir and his students (bNiddah 31b):

תניא היה רבי מאיר אומר מפני מה אמרה תורה נדה לשבעה? מפני שרגיל בה וקץ בה, אמרה תורה תהא טמאה שבעה ימים כדי שתהא חביבה על בעלה כשעת כניסתה לחופה

For this, it’s nice for both Rabbi Meir and his students to understand the menstrual separation time for the androcentric view, but would women relate to the seven days of the menstrual separation in this same way?  Whilst it’s possible, it’s likely that a gynocentric position might be something along the lines of opportunities – whether of connecting with one’s husband in different ways, of not thinking about sex, etc.

In all three of these instances, although we have evidence of these rabbinic positions, which reflect androcentric understandings, we are left without evidence of the corresponding gynocentric texts. This isn’t inherently a problem: a lot of the texts back then were orally shared, thus, it would be easy to consider that women at that time were sharing their own texts of these sorts. For us, nowadays, since we have no way of accessing them, that could actually provide a great deal of space to speculate not only as to what may have been, but also what could be….

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