Sara Parks Ricker, “Ignoring Bernadette Brooten: ‘Breaking Out of Subjectivity’ a Lost Cause for Second Temple Jewish

Studies?” Paper presented at Breaking Out of Subjectivity: Contemporary Challenges in the Study of Religion— the 2008 McGill-CREOR Graduate Students’ Conference, Montreal, March 7, 2008.

As I sat staring at the call for papers for this conference in my inbox, I realized that in order to participate, I would need to meld three things: 1) The conference theme, “breaking out of subjectivity”; 2) The mandate of interdisciplinarity of our main conference sponsor, the McGill Centre for Research on Religion; 3) My own work in Second-Temple Jewish history. I have to confess that the task seemed daunting enough that I nearly didn’t submit an abstract at all. As for the first consideration—the conference theme—I’m not ashamed to admit that I work in a field where, if you travel in the right circles, you can get along quite well with extremely minimal contact with philosophy. We spell difference with an “e” without batting an eye. We still use old-fashioned words like “data” and “evidence” and “findings.” I have a professor who once advised me, as I lamented my unfamiliarity with postmodern vocabulary and philosophy (and I quote): “Yes, I’ve been meaning to read up on postmodernism myself, but there really isn’t the time. And besides, I have a feeling it will all blow over.”

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Sara Parks Ricker, “Ignoring Bernadette Brooten: ‘Breaking Out of Subjectivity’ a Lost Cause for Second Temple Jewish Studies?” Paper presented at Breaking Out of Subjectivity: Contemporary Challenges in the Study of Religion— the 2008 McGill-CREOR Graduate Students’ Conference, Montreal, March 7, 2008.

The truth is, I haven’t the time to really figure out what philosophers mean by “the subject” and I actually find deciphering bits of ancient Greek papyrus fragments a good deal easier than deciphering Ricoeur or Foucault (and I assure you, my Greek is quite poor). So I instead tried to focus on the second consideration in the above trio: interdisciplinarity. Here, I felt more confident. Not about what I wanted to say today, but about how crucial I think interdisciplinary endeavour is, based on my past experiences in multidisciplinary settings. I know, for instance, that it hasn’t always been from Religious Studies conferences and lectures that I have come away with the most valuable tools for my own research. Recent advancements in the sister disciplines of history and literature in particular are two wells from which I draw heavily and regularly, although that won’t appear anywhere on my official transcripts or my diploma. After the slow post-Renaissance crawl towards increased compartmentalisation and specialisation, it’s only lately that scholars have really started to clue into the fact that, although there are obvious benefits to going deep, we can suffer from no longer going as wide. That is, we can waste an awful lot of time in our airtight departments, running thought experiments that someone in the next

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Sara Parks Ricker, “Ignoring Bernadette Brooten: ‘Breaking Out of Subjectivity’ a Lost Cause for Second Temple Jewish Studies?” Paper presented at Breaking Out of Subjectivity: Contemporary Challenges in the Study of Religion— the 2008 McGill-CREOR Graduate Students’ Conference, Montreal, March 7, 2008.

building already has the results for, if only we’d bother to knock on his or her door. I think of some of the delightful offspring from recent marriages such as those between, for instance, sociology and religion, anthropology and religion, or classics and religion. But this door between disciplines is only open a crack. Our university culture is still a long way from true interdisciplinarity. We might be specialized to the hilt in our own niches, but many of us would fail an intro-level quiz in a sister discipline. I attended an interdisciplinary colloquium here at McGill a couple years back, involving various deans, profs, and department heads from the university. Despite an incredibly fruitful exchange, the positive results of which are ongoing, I was saddened and a little shocked by how little was known about my field. It was largely assumed that the only purpose of the Religious Studies building was to churn out priests and rabbis! Granted, we sometimes assist with that … but the notion that the discipline could actually be of academic value outside the service of church and synagogue was news to many. I suppose this only hurt my pride, not my scholarship, but a lack of interdisciplinary exchange can also pose more concrete problems. For example, I ran into a fellow here at Thomson House a couple of weeks ago who’s doing his PhD in the Literature department. I asked him about his dissertation and, in the course of our conversation, it came to light that one of the literary theorists he was working with would have been the perfect solution to a major methodological problem I’d

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Sara Parks Ricker, “Ignoring Bernadette Brooten: ‘Breaking Out of Subjectivity’ a Lost Cause for Second Temple Jewish Studies?” Paper presented at Breaking Out of Subjectivity: Contemporary Challenges in the Study of Religion— the 2008 McGill-CREOR Graduate Students’ Conference, Montreal, March 7, 2008.

wrestled with for my M.A. thesis. Unfortunately, I’d never even heard of him until after I’d already handed the thing in! Armed with this belief in the benefits of cross-pollination, I hatched a plan. I would take advantage of today’s interdisciplinary gathering to deal with both of the above problems in one fell swoop. I would not only share with you a little glimpse at the work of Bernadette Brooten, a scholar of Early Judaism and Christianity whose work I admire, to serve as proof that not all of us in Religious Studies are destined to wear the priestly robe, but I would also present you with some problems that have been bothering me and see if your combined and diverse brains mightn’t point me in positive directions. Without further ado, I’ll share my problematic with you and we’ll get started. While many biblical historians still relegate their mention of the modern philosophical critique of objectivity to perfunctory footnotes, they have made important moves toward an awareness of the biases that have informed their conclusions. The past century’s redoubled rigour has resulted in major advancements in Second Temple Judaism. How useful, though, are improvements which are not incorporated into scholarly consensus and never really “trickle down”? This paper looks at Bernadette Brooten’s refutation of the assumption that there were no female priests or synagogue leaders in ancient Judaism. Brooten re4

Sara Parks Ricker, “Ignoring Bernadette Brooten: ‘Breaking Out of Subjectivity’ a Lost Cause for Second Temple Jewish Studies?” Paper presented at Breaking Out of Subjectivity: Contemporary Challenges in the Study of Religion— the 2008 McGill-CREOR Graduate Students’ Conference, Montreal, March 7, 2008.

reads previously-existing inscriptional data, and finds a veritable avalanche of evidence for ancient Jewish female leaders of various sorts. Yet despite the publication of her exhaustive collection of clear examples, the old unargued assumption still reins in the classroom. Does Brooten’s work indicate that, while breaking out of subjectivities may be possible to a degree, the way is not open to all new findings? I do see the present as an exciting time to be working in GrecoRoman Judaism because of scholars such as James VanderKam, George Nickelsburg, Bob Kraft, Lee McDonald, Adele Reinhartz, Daniel Boyarin, and so many others who are promoting an approach to history that attempts to build its categories by beginning with ancient evidence, rather than beginning with our own modern categories and questions and then forcing ancient evidence to fit them, potentially mangling the better part of it in the process. Yet despite this honing of methods in search of higher standards of rigour, we are understandably unable (or even unwilling) to cast aside all of our assumptions and stereotypes right away. For instance, Brooten, in her 1982 work, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue, demonstrated that many of the inscriptions which we now know to provide evidence for ancient Jewish women who were heads of synagogues, elders, or even priests had been overlooked by otherwise cautious scholars, due to their pre-existing assumption that there were no female leaders in Judaism. (This was due, I suppose, to their having taken over the biases against female 5

Sara Parks Ricker, “Ignoring Bernadette Brooten: ‘Breaking Out of Subjectivity’ a Lost Cause for Second Temple Jewish Studies?” Paper presented at Breaking Out of Subjectivity: Contemporary Challenges in the Study of Religion— the 2008 McGill-CREOR Graduate Students’ Conference, Montreal, March 7, 2008.

leadership found in so-called “normative” or “orthodox” sources such as the Hebrew Bible and the rabbis). However, as Brooten shows, some rather humorous antics had to be performed in order to maintain these assumptions. I’ll share some with you. In three Greek inscriptions in particular, women are accorded the specific title “head of synagogue” (a0rxisunagwgov). The inscriptions aren’t ambiguous. One reads: “Rufina, a Jewess, head of the synagogue, built this tomb for her freed slaves and the slaves raised in her house. No one else has the right to bury anyone (here).” (5) (I brought the Greek, if anyone would like to have a look later.) Brooten traced the history of scholarship on this inscription and found the following. Solomon Reinach, who first published the inscription, declares that the title must be merely honorary rather than functional. To get over the fact that archisynagogos had already been established as a functional title, he decides that, when faced with female archisynagogoi there must have been two stages in the history of the word’s usage—an early functional stage, and a later honorific stage. All of this in order to avoid the plain sense of the inscriptions! Another scholar, M. Weinberg, solves the dilemma of a woman leader by saying that Rufina must have been the wife of an archisynagogos (although there is nothing in the language to suggest it). His reasoning for this little linguistic minuet is simple: “for

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Sara Parks Ricker, “Ignoring Bernadette Brooten: ‘Breaking Out of Subjectivity’ a Lost Cause for Second Temple Jewish Studies?” Paper presented at Breaking Out of Subjectivity: Contemporary Challenges in the Study of Religion— the 2008 McGill-CREOR Graduate Students’ Conference, Montreal, March 7, 2008.

women have never held an office in a Jewish community, and certainly not a synagogue office.” (6) Emil Schurer is equally dismissive: “Rufina herself bears the title archisunagogos, which in the case of a woman is, of course, just a title.” (6) Brooten collects example after example of this sort of sidestepping of these not one but three clear inscriptions. I share but a few more to make my point: Rufina “was very likely a lady whom the congregation wished to honour, but to whom it could hardly have entrusted the actual charge of an office.” (6) “Concerning the women, it can certainly not mean that they were bestowed with the dignity of a head of the synagogue, for the synagogue did not allow women such honours; it is rather the wives … who are meant.” (6) None of these scholars bother to argue these positions. They are mentioned in passing as obvious. Brooten’s book covers countless such inscriptions, ranging from leader to elder to synagogue mother to synagogue head to priest, again and again exposing the gymnastic lengths to which scholars would go to avoid reading the inscriptions at face value. In every case where an inscription which suggested female leadership had been unearthed, scholars had posited bizarre explanations for this “problem.” The term priest “hiereia/hierissa” had to be a proper name. Had to be the title of the woman’s father. Had to be a misspelling. Or the priest had to be a male, but (for some reason) with a female name. Granted, some of the inscriptions are fragmentary or ambiguous. But, as Brooten points out (99), “if these inscriptions

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Sara Parks Ricker, “Ignoring Bernadette Brooten: ‘Breaking Out of Subjectivity’ a Lost Cause for Second Temple Jewish Studies?” Paper presented at Breaking Out of Subjectivity: Contemporary Challenges in the Study of Religion— the 2008 McGill-CREOR Graduate Students’ Conference, Montreal, March 7, 2008.

had come from another Graeco-Roman religion, no scholar would have thought of arguing that ‘priest’ does not really mean ‘priest’.” I could go on and on with examples, but I’d like to leave time to pick your brains. I have four problems for you to help me work towards solving: 1) If esteemed and talented scholars like Schurer could be so blinded by bias as to read certain inscriptions according to an alternative, even bizarre, hermeneutic, in order to avoid modifying preconceived conclusions, then who is to say that we ourselves are not performing hermeneutical gymnastics in equally blinded ways? Is there any escaping our own as-yet-unnoticed subjective blinders? 2) If esteemed and talented scholars like Brooten can produce such meticulous and convincing bodies of work only to find that, over 20 years later, their findings have not become consensus and the outdated stereotypes still prevail, then is there any hope for us? In other words, is there any point in honing our methods, pooling our disciplines, modifying our assumptions, and sharing our results if no practical changes result at the level of the publishing house, the classroom, or even society? 3) If some findings (like, say, the diversity of Judaisms during the Greco-Roman period, or the variegation or even absence of

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Sara Parks Ricker, “Ignoring Bernadette Brooten: ‘Breaking Out of Subjectivity’ a Lost Cause for Second Temple Jewish Studies?” Paper presented at Breaking Out of Subjectivity: Contemporary Challenges in the Study of Religion— the 2008 McGill-CREOR Graduate Students’ Conference, Montreal, March 7, 2008.

messianisms therein) become widely known and discipline-changing, and other findings (like the existence of women leaders) do not, is something sinister or at least problematic at play? For instance, is scholarship by or about women less likely to forge consensus? Is it seen as an unimportant fringe field? 4) If only a small percentage of scholars move in interdisciplinary circles (such as the disappointingly few biblical scholars who actually widen their pool of data to include papyrology, inscriptional and material evidence, non-canonical literature, classics, modern literary theory, etc.), then is there any hope of approaching widespread, wellrounded knowledge of the ancient world at all? Or will most of us remain in highly technical scholarly bubbles, speaking a language only meaningful to others who happen to share our arbitrarily-demarcated data pools and our specialized jargon? These four questions sound like I espouse a pessimistic view. But pessimism is an attitude to which I am not inclined, and a view which I now hope you will refute with your own experiences and insights. Thanks very much.

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