Rabbis and “Guerrilla Girls” A Bavli Motif of the Female (Counter) Voice in the Rabbinic Legal System

Gail Labovitz


Rabbinic Judaism created a system of laws and legal categories that generally functioned to put women at a social and material disadvantage. Intriguingly, then, rabbinic sources also include scattered stories of women in their own, rabbinic context(s) confronting and finding ways to maneuver within the details of those laws so as to attempt (and even to succeed) to secure a favorable result. Rachel Adler and Charlotte Fonrobert have used terms such as "trickster" and "ruse" to describe the character and actions of Yalta, the protagonist of one such story. Each has thus identified and highlighted a critical feature of this story that contributes to the subversive potential that a female figure like Yalta exhibits in this episode: both the (likely) ruse and the ability to function not just as an object but as a participant to some degree in rabbinic legal discourse. In this article, these criteria will be used to seek to identify other stories in the Bavli that might speak to this theme, and to analyze the presentation of female characters that come before legal authorities and the actions they take in the course of their cases. Put another way, can we identify other stories about other female characters that might function as tricksters and/or “legal guerrillas” (to use another of Adler's terms)? And if we can, what might this imply about rabbis and rabbinic culture that such episodes are incorporated, presumably by the rabbis themselves, into Talmudic literature?

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