His/Her Story: A woman 'head of the synagogue'

As it turns out, the evidence available about women in the Greco-Roman Diaspora is distinctive and, at times, quite difficult to interpret.

shabbat hala_311 (photo credit: Detroit Free Press/MCT)
shabbat hala_311
(photo credit: Detroit Free Press/MCT)
Jews living in the Greco-Roman Diaspora in the period known as late antiquity (second/third centuries until the fall of the Empire in the fifth century) had experiences that differed considerably from those in the Land of Israel. This held true for women as well as men. As it turns out, the evidence available about women is distinctive and, at times, quite difficult to interpret.
One Greek inscription in particular has long attracted the attention of scholars in the field. This inscription is from Smyrna (modern-day Izmir), located in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), and was commissioned in the second or third century by a woman named Rufina.
While the name Rufina is Latin, the dedicator immediately identified herself by the Greek term Ioudaia. This term is unusual in inscriptions otherwise thought to be Jewish, and suggests that it was important for Rufina. It may even suggest that she wasn’t born Jewish, but converted at some point in her life. The second detail recorded was that she was the archisynagogos, the head (or possibly the president) of the synagogue.
Bernadette Brooten discussed this woman, as well as others, in her path-breaking book, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue (1982). Ross S. Kraemer has also translated and included this inscription (most recently in Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook, 2004) and has attempted to reconstruct the life of Rufina on the basis of four sentences that appeared on the marble plaque. (See the fascinating article in Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, Judith Baskin, ed., 2nd ed., 1998.) In order to pay for such a substantial inscription, Rufina had to have had some wealth of her own; after all, she owned the burial site. Because the tomb was for “her freed slaves and the slaves raised in her household,” it is possible that she was head of her household. One can only conjecture as to how her wealth was accumulated. Other inscriptions reveal additional Jewish women who were independent and active in the public realm.
Note that there is no evidence regarding the presence of rabbis in these communities; at this time, there are Greek terms to designate teacher, such as sophodidaskalos (teacher of wisdom) or nomodidaskalos (teacher of law), but the developments in the Land of Israel are not reflected in the Greco-Roman Diaspora of late antiquity.
Some women possibly attended synagogue services and appear to have been active members, donors and leaders. The titles they received do not seem to be derived from their fathers or husbands, but then again, it is not entirely clear what exactly constituted a synagogue in second- or third-century Smyrna.
The continuation of the inscription is also revealing. Rufina paid to include the fact that this burial place was hers, and that no one should dare to use it for other burials. She listed a double fine for all transgressors, who, if caught, would have to pay the “sacred treasury” as well as the Jewish community (possibly a legal entity).
It was also stated that the public archives had a copy. While it was not unusual to pay the local treasury or the community, this extra double insurance policy was less common. Kraemer explains that this is an indication that she was connected in some way to the non-Jewish community.
Note that no men are mentioned in this inscription. No one knows if Rufina was single or married, a widow, a mother or a grandmother. At the same time, she seems to be free of male control, making her own decisions, using her own finances, owning her own slaves, negotiating her own arrangements both for the burial place as well as for the protection she was offering those buried there. It is fascinating to see how much (or little) can be learned on the basis of four sentences commissioned by an elite woman from second- or third-century Smyrna.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history and the 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.