Rashi's Daughters, Book I: Joheved
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In 1068, the scholar Salomon ben Isaac returns home to Troyes, France, to take over the family winemaking business and embark on a path that will indelibly influence the Jewish world—writing the first Talmud commentary, and secretly teaching Talmud to his daughters.
Joheved, the eldest of his three girls, finds her mind and spirit awakened by religious study, but knowing the risk, she must keep her passion for learning and prayer hidden. When she becomes betrothed to Meir ben Samuel, she is forced to choose between marital happiness and being true to her love of the Talmud.
In Book I: Joheved, Maggie Anton introduces readers to the remarkable daughters of Rashi and brings eleventh-century France—the people, customs, and attitudes of society—vividly to life.
Maggie Anton was born Margaret Antonofsky in Los Angeles, California. Raised in a secular, socialist household, she reached adulthood with little knowledge of her Jewish religion. All that changed when David Parkhurst, who was to become her husband, entered her life, and they both discovered Judaism as adults. In the early 1990's, Anton began studying Talmud in a class for women taught by Rachel Adler, now a professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. She became intrigued with the idea that Rashi, one of the greatest Jewish scholars ever, had no sons, only three daughters. Slowly but surely, she began to research the family and the time in which they lived. Legend has it that Rashi's daughters were learned in a time when women were traditionally forbidden to study the sacred texts. These forgotten women seemed ripe for rediscovery, and the idea of a book about them was born.
Q. Who was Rashi?
A. Born in 1040 in northern France, Rabbi Shlomo Yizhaki (better known by his Hebrew initials, Rashi) was a great Talmudic scholar who studied in Worms and Mayence before starting his own school in his native city of Troyes. Because of his unique take on Talmudic study, students flocked to receive the benefits of his vast erudition and distinctive method of interpretation.
Q. Why is Rashi’s influence relevant today?
A. Rashi wanted to make being Jewish as easy as possible. His belief in finding the most lenient legal opinion without building “fences around the Torah,” and in permitting rather than forbidding, makes him a model rabbi for our times.
Q. How did you get interested in Rashi’s daughters?
A. I began studying Talmud with a group of women after my children grew up and left the house. The more I studied Talmud from a feminist perspective, the more curious I became about Rashi’s learned daughters and how they managed to study Talmud in the Middle Ages when such study was supposedly forbidden.
Q. Why was Talmud study forbidden for women?
A. This question deserves more than the brief answer I’ll give here. In Deuteronomy, Jews are commanded to teach Torah to bnaichem, a word that even the Orthodox translate as “your children.” But the early rabbis used its literal meaning, “your sons,” and decided that only men were obligated to study Torah. The Talmudic sage Rav Eliezer took this exemption of women one step further and declared that “he who teaches his daughter Torah, teaches her lechery.”
Q. So what were the consequences for women who studied Talmud?
A. All societies, Jews included, disapprove of those who don’t follow their norms. Women who wanted to study Talmud were seen as lacking in proper feminine attributes, and because women were thought to be light-headed, incapable of serious study, those who tried to study Talmud would only learn to be crafty and devious. Then, as now, since a man typically preferred to believe that he was more intelligent than his wife, the learned woman was left with a limited choice of potential husbands.
Q. What were the most interesting things you learned from your research?
A. The Shabbat lights blessing was based on the Chanukah lights blessing, not vice versa—and that in Rashi’s time, this blessing was the basis of a great controversy that wasn’t settled until years after his death. Also, Jewish women in Rashi’s time were able to demand a divorce from their husbands, while a man couldn’t divorce his wife without her consent.
Q. Were there any surprises?
A. I was quite surprised to learn that there was little anti-Semitism in Rashi’s time—the church was more interested in converting pagans and going after its own heretic sects than in persecuting the Jews. Ghettos and blood libels came centuries later. Also, Jews lived prosperous lives (even the poorest Jews had servants) and engaged in many occupations (Rashi was a vintner, for example). Some Jews were feudal lords with small fiefs and very few Jews supported themselves by money-lending.
Q. What do you see as the legacy Rashi’s daughters leave for modern Jewish women?
A. Rashi’s daughters recognized the value of Torah study in the Jewish world, and they wanted an education for themselves as well as for their husbands and sons. Like women today, they attended synagogue regularly and performed those rituals usually reserved for men. When modern Jewish women create new rituals and new blessings, we are following in the footsteps of Rashi’s daughters and doing what our female ancestors were already doing 900 years ago.
Q. Why did you choose to include explicit sex scenes in the book?
A. I don’t like historical fiction that closes the door on its characters, so I resolved to follow Joheved no matter what she was doing: eating, praying, using the privy, studying, dealing with menstruation, preparing a corpse for burial, and making love. Joheved is a young woman, newly married and hoping to get pregnant, so naturally sex is an important part of her life. I wrote the book I wanted to read, which is why the Talmud scenes are in there as well (and there’s a lot more Talmud than sex). But most important—so many books, movies, and TV shows today are saturated with casual hook-up sex that you’d never know how good sex could/should be between a loving couple in a sacred relationship, which is what Judaism teaches. Many parents have told me that Joheved’s wedding night is the kind of sex scene they want their teenagers to read.
- What tone does the opening scene set? What does it tell you about Joheved’s character?
- Describe how the bond between Joheved and Salomon develops and changes with time? Discuss the pros and cons of Jewish childhood in medieval France.
- Rashi’s Daughters is filled with carefully researched historical anecdotes that the author uses as inspiration for her own imagined scenes. Discuss this interplay of fact and fiction.
- Rivka is upset with her daughters learning Talmud. Are her objections reasonable? Why would men not want women in a position of knowledge? What is threatening about educated women? Discuss the role of women in medieval society versus their role today.
- Joheved and Meir have an arranged marriage, as do Salomon and Rivka. Compare Joheved and Meir’s relationship to Salomon and Rivka’s? To Miriam and Benjamin’s? Discuss the pros and cons of arranged marriage versus marrying for love. Why would Sarah prefer widowhood to remarriage?
- Salomon’s decision to write down his kuntres is a controversial innovation. Discuss how a society is changed in a shift from oral to written tradition.
- Relations between French Jews and Christians were fairly tolerant during this time. Was this lack of overt anti-Semitism surprising? What other myths about medieval times did Rashi’s Daughters debunk?
- Which characters resonated the most powerfully for you? Were there others you would have liked to have known more about? Why?
- What do you see in the future for Rachel? Are there any clues that indicate what might happen?
- Religion was a powerful force for both Jews and Christians in medieval times. Is religion as powerful now? How does your religion, or lack of one, influence your life?