‘She Said,’ Part II of III

And she will be her own woman, [free to] teach whomever she pleases and do whatever she pleases.” Thus wrote Moshe.

Maimonides 311 (photo credit: Yair Haklai/Wikimedia Commons)
Maimonides 311
(photo credit: Yair Haklai/Wikimedia Commons)
(The woman asking this question has been supporting herself – in 12thcentury Egypt – in her husband’s absence after overcoming dire poverty. The father of her two sons returned to find his 25-year-old wife living at the beit midrash where she teaches, by herself now, because her brother/ colleague is also traveling.)
The husband is displeased and insists that she either returns home or grants him the right to take a second wife. She contends that now that she has managed to find a respectable means of survival for herself and the boys, she is not willing to return to the same miserable situation as before. She informs him that while she has no objection to his opting to divorce her, she has no intention of ever agreeing to a polygamous arrangement. (The fact that he is asking for permission to wed a second wife implies that she has the “monogamy clause” in her marriage contract. Thus the husband is prevented from taking a second wife without the first one’s permission.) She mentions to the court the fact that he is essentially living with his mother – providing his wife and children with absolutely nothing – yet complaining incessantly about her in public because she is not fulfilling her role as a wife and not sleeping at home.
The wife then makes him an offer: Instead of sleeping at your mother’s, come home or come live with us at the school. Since I own an apartment that is empty anyway, why not rent it out and keep the rental fee? I pay rent to the school and can afford such an arrangement.
His response is overwhelmingly negative: Under no condition is he prepared to function as a landlord. He demands that she return home and act like a proper wife or allow him to marry another.
After giving the matter some thought, he makes an attempt to appease her.
His plan is to take a loan so that he could buy food staples, and lure her home. She explains that this is not at all feasible. The fact is that the life of a teacher in medieval Cairo was bereft of tenure or security.
The parents of pupils paid their teachers weekly on Thursdays to enable them to make purchases for Shabbat. There were no contracts and no obligation on the parents’ part to enroll at any particular school. As this woman explains, if she does not show up at school, the parents will simply take their children to another school. If and when she returns, it would be to an empty classroom.
While her older son accompanies her, the parents bring the boys because of her teaching reputation. Her sons have no trade; she is their sole support.
She makes it clear that if she agrees to his proposal, she would not expect him to support them for long; consequently she would once again find herself back in an impossible situation. He would travel again; his family would be destitute.
The questions Does this teacher have to leave her profession and return to the life she previously had? Does she have to fulfill his needs when he himself has not provided her with food, clothing or with anything that is commanded in the Torah? (This is a reference to Exodus 21:10; three obligations of the husband are listed there, namely, food, clothing and sexual obligations.) Does she have to permit him to marry another woman? What is the legal obligation (presumably for her as well as for him) in these matters?
Maimonides’s answer By law, the husband must satisfy his wife’s needs, such as clothes, food, etc.
He has no choice in the matter; if he cannot do so, the court forces him to divorce his wife and pay her the late fee (delayed payment, the second half of the bride payment), if he has it.
The husband may prevent his wife from teaching. The woman has an option, namely to declare herself as a rebellious wife (moredet) and forgo the aforementioned late payment. The husband will then be forced by the court to grant her a divorce. “And she will be her own woman, [free to] teach whomever she pleases and do whatever she pleases.” Thus wrote Moshe.
(Part III: An analysis of “He Said” versus “She Said”)
The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute, as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.