Professor wants to debunk Orthodox view of women

Hauptman, who has been immersed in the study of early rabbinic writings for more than three decades, is out to prove that Judaism has been more open to improving women's status than the Orthodox will admit today.

"I'm trying to say, `You've got it all wrong,'" said Hauptman, an associate professor of Talmud at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Hauptman, who is also author of a new book called "Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice," is visiting San Francisco this weekend as Congregation Beth Sholom's scholar-in-residence.

Ancient Judaism was definitely patriarchal, she said in a phone interview from her office last week. The early rabbis who created the foundation of modern Judaism through their talmudic writings never promoted women's equality.

But even in talmudic times, she said, "Jewish law was in the process of accommodating itself to evolving ethical sensibilities." The rabbis became more sensitive to women's needs and tried to improve the lot of women over time, she said.

Also known as the Oral Law, the Talmud is the collective name for rabbinic commentary on the Jewish law found in the Torah. Talmud includes the Mishnah, the first biblical commentary, which was edited about 200 C.E., as well as commentary on the Mishnah. The texts were put in final form around 750 C.E.

Hauptman certainly has the credentials to address women's status in Judaism.

In 1973, she earned a master's degree in Talmud at JTS and became the first woman to teach the subject on the university level. Nine years later, she became the first woman to earn a doctorate in Talmud and the first female professor of the topic.

She clearly loves studying Talmud.

"It sucked me in," said the Greenwich Village resident, who is in her early 50s, married and the mother of three. "It's a puzzle. It's an enigma. You have to make sense of it…There's drama to it."

The public debate over women's place within Talmud has come to the fore since feminists began publishing critiques about 15 years ago.

Jewish feminists tend to paint Jewish tradition as inherently sexist and solidly misogynist, she said.

"It seems these people are coming to rabbinic texts with preconceived notions," Hauptman said. These feminist critiques are "intellectually dishonest and academically unsound."

In response to the feminists, the Orthodox have been publishing books that defend the talmudic rabbis as "saintly and pious, who highly regarded women." Instead of acknowledging the problems, she said, these books deny any misogyny or mistreatment of women.

"It's a total whitewash."

Her book addresses talmudic changes in Jewish law in 10 areas, including adultery, marriage, rape, divorce, procreation, menstruation, inheritance and testimony.

Her dozens of examples include the Talmud's elimination of the biblical ritual for determining whether a woman had committed adultery.

In addition, men basically purchased brides during biblical times. The rabbis created the ketubah, a document that required a man to provide for his wife. They added a requirement for the woman's consent to marriage, which wasn't found in the Bible.

The rabbi's definition of rape also shifted from an "outrage against a woman's father to an act of assault and battery against her." The rabbis abolished a biblical requirement that the woman marry the rapist.

Whenever Hauptman would bring up individual examples as proof of women's improved status, other Jews would say in a patronizing tone, "Go ahead and believe that." So she finally decided to compile it all in a book.

"I want to overwhelm people with evidence," she said.

Hauptman's determination is nothing new.

Raised as a Conservative Jew, Hauptman rebelled against what she saw as inconsistencies in her family's practice of Judaism. For example, she said, they attended Shabbat services but technically violated halachah by driving and answering the phone.

Seeking consistency, she turned to Orthodoxy around age 12. She persuaded her parents to let her transfer from public school to an Orthodox day school. Unusual in its own right, the coed school allowed girls to study Talmud until 10th grade.

After high school, she reversed course again and returned to Conservative Judaism.

"I calmed down. I discovered that more important than consistency was truth."