Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Medieval Trash Heap, a Refuge from the Modern One

I'd like to share a paragraph that comes close to the end of a 1957 article I've just finished reading in the course of my research on a medieval woman poet. The article was written by the founding father of Cairo Genizah studies, S.D. Goitein:

"It is natural for woman, whose emotional life is strong and delicate, to be sensitive to religious poetry and endowed with the gift of song. In a society which does not oppress woman, especially one which does not humiliate her spirit or steal her self-worth from her, these traits find their outlet in creativity. Biblical society was such, and we have therefore found that the Hebrew woman of ancient days lifted up her voice in song. For the rule governing her was not yet 'the voice of a woman is indecent' but rather its opposite: 'let me hear your voice.' She sang in times of love and during the days of mourning, expressed the joy of victory and the agony of defeat, words of wisdom and whispers of prayer."

The whole article is a cacophony of similarly insulting, patronizing comments on women and literature that, beyond being out-and-out sexist are also just methodologically wrong and not the way we — any of us, regardless of critical school — approach literature. I don't even think it was the way we approached literature in the antediluvian 1950s when this article was originally written. (The 1988 publication date that you'll see if you follow the link above reflects the posthumous publication of an English translation of the article, which was originally written in Hebrew.) It unquestioningly lines up the Hebrew Bible with modern poetic practices, forcing and shoehorning the the Bible into corresponding with history in a way I've only ever seen amongst the farthest-gone religious fundamentalists and Levantine archaeologists of a certain school of thought:

"During his studies the present writer sometimes heard women's poetry spoken  by men and men's by women; and yet the gender of the author was always immediately apparent" (2).
"Woman's poetry sometimes took the form of prophecy. The connection between poetry and prophecy is likewise found among many ancient peoples, and is the subject of a book by a well-known woman anthropologist and literary scholar" (3).
"Nor is the reason that 'women are chatterboxes'" (31).

The irony of it is that the vast majority of Goitein's writing on the women whose lives were recorded in and amongst the sacred trash is sensitive and nuanced and thoughtful, and for many topics in women's history and literature in the Genizah remains the authoritative work. I'm at a loss to explain what happened when he sat down to write this article. Perhaps his papers might offer some clue; perhaps I'll have a chance to look into it at some point. 

But the usual approach that we expect from Goitein when writing about women still breaks through in one line in that first offending paragraph: "The rule governing her was not yet 'the voice of a woman is indecent' but rather its opposite: 'let me hear your voice." Goitein wrote this while comparing modern Yemenite women's poetry and song to the occurrence of women poets and singers in the Hebrew Bible; the contrast that he establishes between the now and the then and the place of women in each evinces sadness over what has come to be and nostalgia for what had once been.

The voice of the woman is now indecent: We are reminded of it monthly as the Israeli police arrest women worshippers at the Western Wall for donning ritual garments that they are legally but not halakhically (according to the majority of authorities) prevented from wearing — women are exempted from wearing fringed garments and phylacteries, but that exemption evolved into a prohibition over time — and for praying out loud. Kol isha, the voice of the woman, is indecent and it is criminal.

The regular arrests and imprisonments of Jewish women in Israel for praying against the law is a powerful contrast with the occasionally tin-eared mid-century historian who would pat us on the head and exoticize us but then go ahead and treat our forebearers fairly and with great humanity as he pulled their history painstakingly from the most historic of rubbish bins and lament the loss of a time when we could speak, aloud and in writing, for ourselves. Neither model, the modern Israeli legal establishment's nor the archivist's, is perfect — far from it. But I know with whom I cast my lot.

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