A conversation with Lee I. Levine, professor of Jewish History and Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on the roles women played in the synagogues of antiquity (3rd century C.E..– 7th century C.E.).
What was the status of Jewish women in antiquity?
With some notable exceptions, the woman’s place was primarily in the home, and she was often depicted in disparaging terms. The historian Josephus wrote in the first century C.E.: “The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive, not for her humiliation, but that she may be directed; for the authority has been given by God to the man” (Against Apion 2, 201). Some Jewish women, such as the Hasmonean Queen Salome and Queen Helena of Adiabene, reached the pinnacles of political power and social recognition within Jewish society; however, such achievements were clearly not the rule. At best, one can say that these exceptions proved the rule of female marginality in the public sphere.
Did women attend religious services in the synagogue?
Women were regularly present in the synagogue. One early rabbinic tradition speaks of a halachic ruling allowing a non-Jewish woman to help prepare the meal until the Jewish woman of the household returned from the synagogue (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 38a-b). Another mentions the right of women and minors to be included among the seven people called to read from the Torah on the Sabbath (Tosefta, Megillah 3, 11-12); the obvious assumption here is that these participants were regular attendees. The Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah 1, 4, 16d) tells of a woman in Tiberias who went to the synagogue every Friday night to hear R. Meir’s sermons, and a late midrash (Yalqut Shim’oni, Deuteronomy, 871) tells of an elderly woman who, when consulting with the second-century R. Yose b. Halafta, mentioned that she went to the synagogue every morning.
A Christian source also confirms the presence of women, albeit in a less flattering light. Toward the end of the fourth century, John Chrysostom (later to become the Patriarch of Constantinople) preached that synagogues were places of abomination, the proof of which lay in the fact that men and women gathered there together. He also denounced some of the women in his church as “judaizers,” an indication that they regularly attended the synagogue (Discourse against Judaizing Christians).
When one also considers that women were regularly present in the Jerusalem Temple until its destruction in 70 C.E., so much so that one of the Temple’s main courts was called “the Women’s Court,” it comes as no surprise that women were recognized and accepted as part of the synagogue community throughout Late Antiquity.
Did women play a ritual role in the synagogue?
One rabbinic source (Tosefta, Megillah 3:11-12) addresses this question, but unfortunately it is both ambiguous and ambivalent:
[A] Everyone is included in the counting of seven [people to be called up to read from the Torah on the Sabbath], even a woman, even a child.
[B] One does not bring a woman to read to the public.
 If a synagogue has only one person who is able to read, he stands, reads, and sits; stands, reads, and sits; stands, reads, and sits—even seven times.
What are we to make of the apparent contradiction between statements [A] and [B]? Why was a woman given carte blanche to participate [A] if the intention was to disqualify her from doing so [B]? Perhaps statement [A] was intended to allow a woman to read, but this permission was later withdrawn, as indicated in [B]. Statement [B] makes a categorical declaration denying this possibility, but in doing so it seems to imply that women were, in fact, called upon to read from the Torah at some time or place. It is at this point, however, that we reach a dead end. In the absence of any additional evidence, a firm determination remains elusive.
Did women contribute financially to the synagogue, and were they so recognized?
Absolutely. Names of women donors are inscribed in numerous synagogues throughout the Empire, sometimes also noting what was donated—entire buildings, wall decorations, mosaics, porticos, ablution basins, etc. Interestingly, the extent of women’s involvement as donors varied from region to region. Whereas in Roman Palestine only 4–5% of women are mentioned in inscriptions as synagogue benefactors, nearly 30% of the donors cited in the Roman Diaspora were women. Since the Diaspora evidence is concentrated in Greece and Asia Minor (today’s Turkey), where pagan and Christian women were also prominent benefactors, Jewish women in their communities may have been influenced by this prevalent regional practice.
Did women hold leadership positions in the synagogue?
Yes. Synagogue inscriptions from different locales identify women with the titles archisynagogos/archisynagogissa (head of a synagogue), archegissa (leader), presbytera (elder), mater or pateressa (mother), and priestess. The titles vary depending on the region. For example, women are mentioned in the role of “archisynagogue” in only three synagogues—Smyrna, Crete, and Myndos—all in the Aegean and Asia Minor. In addition, a woman treasurer (gizbarit) is mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 62a), but no details are offered regarding her specific duties or where she performed them. There is no reason to doubt that such titles referred to actual official positions and were not necessarily honorific titles, as was assumed by earlier scholars. In contrast, there is no evidence to suggest that women held defined communal positions in the First or Second Temple periods (except for such charismatic biblical figures as Miriam and Deborah). Once again, this phenomenon probably reflects the customs of the larger society impacting on local Jewish communities.
In what ways did Jewish synagogue practices differ from those of other religions or cultures?
One significant difference relates to male-female seating arrangements. For the first seven centuries of the Common Era, women and men in both Palestine and the Diaspora sat together in the synagogue. This practice was in stark contrast to that of Roman society, which regularly instituted segregation in the public realm along class, ethnic, or gender lines; and that of the early church, which by and large separated men and women as well.
Given the long-held Orthodox insistence on separate seating, it’s surprising to hear that there was mixed seating in the ancient synagogue.
The physical separation of men and women in the synagogue developed at a later time. There is no archaeological evidence from antiquity of a women’s section in any synagogue, nor a single inscription noting such a separation. The absence of epigraphical evidence is significant, given the fact that many synagogue inscriptions of the time do, in fact, name various areas within the building. The majority of these edifices had only a single prayer hall where the congregation gathered, but no balcony. And even when a building did have one, there is no reason to assume that it served as a women’s gallery. It might have functioned as a space for meetings, court sessions, festive meals, study, or the hazzan’s (cantor’s) living quarters; according to rabbinic sources, the synagogue balcony was used for all these purposes.
Also notably absent from rabbinic sources is any discussion of separate seating for women. Four hundred or so traditions in rabbinic literature address the synagogue and its functions, and not one mentions a special women’s section. One rabbinic source does attest to the separation of men and women, but this was in the Jerusalem Temple, when a special balcony was constructed around the “Women’s Court” to separate the sexes during the frivolous Water Drawing Festival on Sukkot (Mishnah, Middot 2, 5; Tosefta, Sukkah 4,1). Notably, this stated exception to the rule makes it clear that on the other fifty-one weeks of the year, there was no such separation of men and women in the Temple precincts.
The sum of the evidence leaves little doubt that throughout Late Antiquity, whenever Jews gathered in the synagogue for ritual purposes, there were no gender distinctions in seating arrangements.
When did separate seating emerge?
We know from Maimonides and the Cairo Genizah that this custom, in Egypt at least, was well in place by the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as these sources explicitly note a separation or partition (mehitzah). Thus, at some point between the seventh and eighth centuries (our last-dated archaeological and literary sources for Late Antiquity) and the eleventh century (the above-noted sources from Egypt), this division was adopted by Jewish communities, likely because of Islamic or Christian influence, newly developing religious stringencies within Judaism regarding the impurity of women, or perhaps both of these considerations.
Were there any other notable differences between the practices in synagogues and those of the surrounding cultures?
Yes, there were differences in the area of liturgical responsibilities. Perhaps because of the plethora of gods and goddesses in the Greco-Roman pantheon, pagan women were accorded prominent roles in many facets of the temple cult: they served as priests, guarded and maintained the premises, offered sacrifices on a regular basis on behalf of a wide variety of deities, and sometimes organized the major festivals. Similarly, women played important roles within early Christianity. Over time, however, as Christianity developed, and as its many sects disappeared (or were eliminated), women’s roles in communal liturgy largely disappeared. With the rise of Islam, investiture of religious leadership exclusively in the hands of males became the accepted pattern.
Why were Jewish women liturgically marginalized?
The reasons have yet to be fully explored. It is possible that Jews looked askance upon women’s cultic participation because of the monotheistic nature of Judaism: at the center is one God, who was perceived to be of masculine gender; or perhaps women’s involvement was associated with temple prostitution in the pagan world. Whatever the reasons, an official liturgical role for women in Judaism remained almost negligible until the twentieth century in America, when Reform and Conservative Judaism eliminated this age-old discrimination.
Series To Be Continued...