The status of women in the ancient Judaism of the Hebrew Bible
and Rabbinic texts has long been a contested issue. What does being
a Jewess entail in antiquity? Men in ancient Jewish culture are
defined primarily by what duties they are expected to perform, the
course of action that they take. The Jewess, in contrast, is bound
Writing on the formation and transformation of the ideology of
female Jewishness in the ancient world, Zlotnick places her
treatment in a broad, comparative, Mediterranean context, bringing
in parallels from Greek and Roman sources. Drawing on episodes from
the Hebrew Bible and on Midrashic, Mishnaic, and Talmudic texts,
she pays particular attention to the ways in which they attempt to
determine the boundaries of communal affiliation through real and
perceived differences between Israelites, or Jews, on one hand and
non-Israelites, or Gentiles, on the other.
Women are often associated in the sources with the forbidden, and
foreign women are endowed with a curious freedom of action and
choice that is hardly ever shared by their Jewish counterparts.
Delilah, for instance, is one of the most autonomous women in the
Bible, appearing without patronymic or family ties. She also brings
disaster. Dinah, the Jewess, by contrast, becomes an agent of
self-destruction when she goes out to mingle with gentile female
friends. In ancient Judaism the lessons of such tales were applied
as rules to sustain membership in the family, the clan, and the
While Zlotnick's central project is to untangle the challenges of
sex, gender, and the formation of national identity in antiquity,
her book is also a remarkable study of intertextual relations
within the Jewish literary tradition.
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