Thursday, November 26, 2009

Learned Jewish Women in Sixteenth Century Italy

Renaissance Italy is usually a good place to look for precedents for liberal Jewish practices. In terms of Jewish education for women and women studying the Talmud Andree Aelion Brooks points out:

Shortly before Dona Gracia was born, a Talmud Torah for girls had opened in Rome; its women graduates emerged as poets, writers and patrons of the arts. A woman known as Pomona da Modena, living in Ferrara at the beginning of the century, was said to be as well versed in Talmud "as any man." Another member of Pomona's family, Fioretta, was constantly engaged in Hebrew and rabbinic learning. Others worked as scribes.

Then there was Bienvenida Abravanel, a niece of the famous Don Isaac Abravanel, the man who led the Jews out of Spain at the time of the Expulsion and later settled in Naples. Bienvenida was so smart and well educated that she became the tutor, and later advisor, to Leonora, daughter of the viceroy of Naples. When the Jews were expelled from Naples in 1530, it was Bienvenida who maneuvered through her court connections to have the order rescinded. After the death of Bienvenida's banker husband, Samuel, Bienvenida continued to run his banking business and use her wealth to ransom Jewish refugees captured by pirates. (Brooks, The Woman who Defied Kings pg. 27)

It should be noted that Isaac Abarbanel believed, in some sense, that women did not have souls and that only men possessed them. Having elite learned women does not mean that women as a group were educated. People who are wealthy and clearly intelligent are going to be allowed a fair degree of eccentric behavior no matter what society they live in and are going to be able to get away with breaking certain social taboos.

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