(Review of) Markus McDowell, Prayers of Jewish Women: Studies of Patterns of Prayer in the Second Temple Period, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006

Shofar, 26/1 (2007), pp. 238-240  Meir Bar-Ilan

 

This book is an elaborated PhD dissertation submitted at Fuller Theological Seminary, and its main focus is clear from its title. It discusses some dozens of prayers that appear in a vast literature from non-Rabbinic Judaism from the Second Temple Period: Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the writings of Josephus and Philo. The common denominator of these prayers is that they are all attributed to women, either as reflecting a "real" history or a literary one. The purpose of the book is twofold, none is less important than the other: liturgy on the one hand and feminine perspectives in Antiquity on the other. McDowell studies prayers and not full books but he is highly aware of modern study on those books in which the prayers he analyzes are incorporated. The study is a literary criticism combined with theology and feminine studies. Its literary criticism is derived from the German Biblical scholarship on the one hand and Israeli scholars on the other.

The five chapters are organized very systematically. The first chapter is devoted to methodology and it discusses prayers according to the following patterns: location, content, form, occasion and perspective. Though 'perspective' sounds highly relative, McDowell explains that he means: 1) "gynocentric perspective"; 2) "feminine imagery and vocabulary" and 3) "gender specific language". In other words, this "perspective" is no other than a sub-issue of content, and the main problem is: to what extant words such as "handmaid" or female body parts disclose the gender of the text, if there is such, or even reveal the gender of the author.

McDowell presents his findings, as well as former scholarship in this subject in a very balanced way. After discussing methodology he writes on prayers attributed to females according to the books divided in time and origin: Palestinian or Diaspora origin. The analyzed prayers come from: Additions to Esther, Judith, Jubilees, Susanna, Tobit, Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, The Testament of Job, Joseph and Asenath, Third Maccabees, the works of Philo of Alexandria, Fourth Maccabees, Second Baruch, Fourth Ezra, Sibylline Oracles, the Writings of Josephus. After discussing each and every prayer in a very systematic way, including all sorts of statistical data that add to the findings, McDowell comes to "Chapter 5: Summaries and Conclusions".

It is true that almost all the texts analyzed by McDowell have already been subject to study, and what is even more frustrating is that almost none of his conclusions might be characterized as "new". Moreover, McDowell is very cautious in his conclusions and he is reluctant to say if any of the documents analyzed by him had been written by a woman. McDowell focuses on prayers from a specific era and thus he almost ignores Biblical predecessors,1 nor is he interested in more modern Jewish women's prayers (to which the term "Rabbinic" might be applied very loosely),2 as if all that data might not help in his analysis. From such a scholar, and his background, one expects to hear also some words on theology as an issue by itself and not only as a subject that appears in the index. In such a study one looks in vain for new voices concerning the relationships between normative and popular religion, for example.3 When McDowell writes (p. 164): "The text depicts women at prayer on the traditional issue of giving birth", one may reconsider his ideas about "tradition" and rightly ask when and if millions of barren mothers praying for a child make the prayer "traditional" (or only when priests in the Temple pray for a barren empress makes the prayer "traditional"). However, these "lacuna" are probably due to the fact that the book is based on a PhD when a scholar is still young (though this is not exactly the case here), so one cannot but wait to see more studies from the writer of this book that, no doubt, will show progress.

One more comment will not be out of place here. McDowell is aware of the dispute between scholars whether Judith is portrayed as a new type of hero or whether (p. 45): "Judith appears to be modeled after Jael and Deborah (and to some extent, Miriam)". However, later McDowell comes to the conclusion that "the main character of these stories: God. While Judith is the central human character… it is really God who is the true hero". This statement may cause to raise one's eyebrow since it is clear that God in Judith is a passive hero, unlike the biblical God that redeems His people even without doing anything (Exod. 14:14). The Jewish people is redeemed not by God and not even by His elders, the normative leaders, but by a woman. No doubt, Judith is the real hero in the story that bears her name and one can judge for himself, and herself, if there is any comparison between Judith and any of her predecessors. At any event, it is clear that a study on liturgy and women needs more theological attention.

Conclusion

The reader is presented here with a very solid and thorough study. It appears there is no book or paper in whatever language (Hebrew included) McDowell was not aware of, and thus he has put the whole subject one step forward. Though this scholar was not the first to survey prayers of Pseudepigrapha, nor was he the first to discuss "feminine" prayers that come from this vast literature, there is no doubt that this scholar wrote a book that leaves behind him almost all his predecessors.

Though McDowell had no pretension to discuss Rabbinic texts and liturgy it seems plausible that his study will shed some light on the (neglected) study of Rabbinic liturgy. McDowell is to be commended warmly on his effort and high scholarship.

P.s. Mohr Siebeck is well known for its unmatched errata-free texts. However, the index here was prepared by software and thus most of the pages near the name "Alexander" in the Index (p. 265) come in vain.

1. M. Bar-Ilan, 'Some Jewish Women in Antiquity', Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1998.

2. Chava Weissler, Voices of the Matriarchs, Boston: Beacon Press, 1998; Aliza Lavie, Tefilat Nashim (Jewish Women's Prayers Throughout the Ages), Tel-Aviv: Miskal – Yediot Ahronoth Books, 2005 (Hebrew).

3. Lester L. Grabbe, Judaic Religion in the Second Temple Period, London and New York: Routledge, 2000, pp. 175-178.