The Mishnah is a book of legal rules produced by Jewish sages in second-century Palestine and is to a great extent still binding upon Orthodox Jews. In this pioneering work, Judith Wegner scrutinizes the Mishnaic laws governing women, in an attempt to determine the image and status of women in the patriarchy the Mishnah portrays. She focuses on a specific question: did the Mishnah's creators regard women as persons, entities possessing legal rights, powers, and duties, or mere chattels, the property of some person or other? Considering a wide range of issues including women's ability to give legal testimony and enter into religious vows, the penalties for rape and seduction and the rules pertaining to betrothal, marriage, and divorce, Wegner discovers a curious paradox. In some circumstances the Mishnah clearly regards women as full legal persons, with the same rights and responsibilities as the adult Israelite male. At other times, however, the system treats women as virtual chattels of the men who control their lives. Through close analysis of individual cases, Wegner isolates the factors that generate differences in the treatment of women.
She finds that these differences hinge on whether a woman is legally independent, or subject to some man's jurisdiction. The crucial point, she demonstrates, is the locus of ownership of the woman's sexual and reproductive function. Whoever owns a woman's sexuality exercises a degree of control over that function - and hence over the woman in question - that greatly resembles an owner's control of a chattel. For this reason the personhood of minor daughters, wives, and certain widows is circumscribed, whereas "emancipated" women such as adult daughters, divorcees, and most widows are virtually autonomous. Of interest to scholars and students of Jewish law and religion, and historians, especially those interested in women's studies.show more