An Introduction to the Series
Judaism has always been somewhat of a romantic religion to me. Perhaps it is because it never ceases to evoke within me an authentic array of emotions, ranging from awe to love to apprehension. Through my knowledge of biblical and Talmudic tales of the nation of Israel, I would advocate that the purest love (that of the highest order) is between the Jewish nation and G-d. However, my lack of knowledge about the women in these texts is disheartening. How many female-driven biblical stories, not merely names, do I actually know? Aside from Eve and the four matriarchs — Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah — I find that I know very little about the women from whom our Jewish nation has originated. Ask me to name the male characters whose stories I can regurgitate, and my list triples, at least. As a result, I have decided to undertake a series of articles with the aim of exposing extraordinary women from holy Jewish texts. I have chosen to title the series “Prodigious Babes of Jewish History” because many times, biblical women are primarily characterized by their relationship to men, i.e. “Wife of [male].” Therefore, there is a sense of male ownership over these women. The contemporary term “babe” connotes a sort of endearing ownership and sentimentalism over whomever is branded as such by whoever is branding. Thus, I aim to reappropriate the reductive term “babe” so as to portray these women as possessing themselves, rather than being possessed by others. I am here to relay to you their stories as relevant to the modern feminist cause, independent of their identities as wives, daughters or sisters of men but rather as wives, daughters or sisters in and of themselves.
Prodigious Babe #1: Imma Shalom
Imma Shalom, whose name translates from Hebrew and Middle Aramaic to mean “Mother of Peace,” is one of three women named in the Talmud. As is typical of these texts, she is introduced to us as the daughter of Rabban (Rabbi) Shimon ben Gamaliel, wife of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and sister of Rabban Gamaliel II of Jabneh.
Imma’s extraordinariness stems from her intellectual capacities and her unabashed participation in men’s discussions. In essence, Imma treats herself as an equal to men, and rightfully so.
A notable instance of Imma’s intellectual prowess is mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, when she is asked why her husband and she have such beautiful children (Ned. 20b). She attributes this fact to her husband’s modesty during intercourse, which she describes in surprising detail. This is notable for two reasons: firstly, a woman speaking so openly about her sex life is unusually risqué; and secondly, her answer implicitly advocates for the proper treatment of women in marital relations.
Another occasion in which Imma displays her wit and boldness is documented in the Jewish Encyclopedia (1904): upon hearing a skeptic taunt her brother, “Your God is not strictly honest, or He would not have stolen a rib from sleeping Adam” (Gen. ii. 21), Imma interjects. She asks the skeptic to call for a constable, and when prompted why, she explains, “We were robbed last night of a silver cruet, and the thief left in its place a golden one.” The bewildered man responds incredulously that he would want that thief to come by regularly, to which Imma replies, “And yet you object to the removal of the rib from sleeping Adam! Did he not receive in exchange a woman to wait on him?”
This anecdote portrays Imma as a woman of perspicacious nature who has an incredible sense of a woman’s worth. On the surface, her response seems to depict women as submissive beings who are created to please men. However, upon closer inspection of Imma’s words, it becomes evident that she is making a point that men are incapable without women. Even in this incident, it is she, not her brother, who puts the skeptic in his place, and all while maintaining respectful demureness in getting her point across.
In short, Imma Shalom is a prodigious babe for her authentic courage, as well as her embodiment of feminist virtues of intellect, autonomy, and will.