‘He said, she said,’ part 3

His Story/Her Story: These two responsa allow us to hear the voices of a Jewish-Egyptian couple in 12th-century Mediterranean society.

Maimonides 311 (photo credit: Yair Haklai/Wikimedia Commons)
Maimonides 311
(photo credit: Yair Haklai/Wikimedia Commons)
His question (responsum 45) was posed by a man who was disgruntled because, upon his return home to Egypt, he discovered that his wife was teaching and not fulfilling her role as a dutiful wife. He explained that he was not divorcing her because he was concerned about protecting their children’s inheritance of the property owned by his wife. Maimonides informed him that despite his request to do so, he could not take a second wife because of the monogamy clause in his wife’s ketuba, but that he could ask the court to prevent her from teaching.
The second question presents a detailed picture of the fate of a child bride saddled with a husband who took no responsibility for his wife or sons. The path she chose was admirable; instead of wallowing in self-pity, she found a means to support her boys and to achieve a respected status in the community. Here is an example par excellence of the power of knowledge and how a Jewish woman can fend for herself once she has gained access to texts. Her behavior seems to be beyond reproach; she even attempted to placate her rather unpleasant husband by means of a generous offer (which was rejected) and she found the inner strength to approach the Jewish court to determine her personal status according to Jewish law.
Could this possibly be the same couple in the two responsa? Apparently so, as determined by Joshua Blau and his colleagues some years ago. How can the differences between the two sources be reconciled? He said that he was away on and off for four years; she said three. I imagine that he chose an even number and did not really pay attention to the length of his absences. His wife, on the other hand, most certainly did. One doubts if he sent letters while away; he most definitely did not send his family money or merchandise to sell in order to survive. His wife and her biological clock noticed precisely when he left, how her children developed without their father’s presence, when they began to walk, to talk and to attend school; she was surely aware of how long she had been fending for herself, especially after her brother left her to run the school on her own.
There are so many identical details in the stories: a brother-in-law who was a teacher joined by his sister; a teacher in a Jewish school; common property ownership with her mother-in-law; an itinerant husband whose profession was either nonexistent or nondescript; a husband anxious to take a second wife despite the clause in the first one’s marriage contract; an unhappy man unwilling to divorce his wife who was not performing her duties.
It is a rare occurrence to be privy to both sides of a story based on rabbinic responsa. (One must remember that this was not divorce court; both were asking for a legal response to their queries.) The husband, of course, streamlined his version, providing the minimum details he deemed necessary; his goal was to receive permission to marry a second wife. The length of the wife’s question with its detailed and heartbreaking description fills in the blanks. Why does she have to forfeit a profession and a life that proved to be her and her sons’ salvation? What about the husband’s obligations? Why does she have to succumb to his whims?
These two responsa allow us to hear the voices of a Jewish-Egyptian couple in 12th-century Mediterranean society and to see how Maimonides perceived the situation by means of its different versions. By the time he hears the teacher’s version, he realizes that she is better off without her husband. He considers her options and informs her that as a divorcée, she would be independent and thus able to continue in her profession. We don’t know how the saga ends, but by means of these documents we witness the empowerment of a woman who, by learning Torah and successfully teaching in a school, is not embarrassed to ask. This brave independent mother of two managed to carve out a niche for herself and to earn the respect and support of the Jewish community in the 12th century. This is a marvel unto itself.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She published “He Said, She Said” in the AJS Review 22:1 (1997).