Over at the Talmud blog, I review Elizabeth Shanks Alexander’s new book on women and timebound, positive commandments. For the last few decades, this obscure- and technical sounding category has been central to fights over feminism and Jewish law, because rabbinic texts seem to exempt women from those commands, excluding them from some of the central responsibilities of a Jewish adult. Alexander argues the term is not just technical in sound; its originators never intended it as anything other than a technical, structural device to help encode information better.
Implicit in the title of Elizabeth Shanks Alexander’s new book, Gender and Timebound Commandments in Judaism, is the question: What does gender have to do with “time-bound, positive commandments”? What motivates rabbinic texts to rule that women are exempt from those mitzvot? And as the phrase “in Judaism” implies, this question arrives entangled in important arguments over how Jewish women ought to practice today. Yet, while Alexander conceived the idea for the book, as she explains in the introduction, “in the shadow of a contemporary cultural debate,” she writes as a Talmudist. Thus, she restricts herself historically to pre-Medieval sources and methodologically to descriptive history. Further, within those frameworks, Alexander does not so much answer as destroy the original question. She argues that in classical Rabbinic literature, the rule does not express a substantive intuition about (or, in her term, “construct”) gender. The rule and its history tell us not about rabbinic attitudes towards gender, but about the transmission of rabbinic texts.