Please save the date for the Thirteen Annual Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Lecture:
“Are Women and Gentiles ‘persons’ (adam, benei adam)? Biblical and Rabbinic Perspectives”
Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen, Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy;
Chair, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University
Thursday, February 19th, 2015 at 6:00 PM
NYU School of Law, NY, NY
RSVP information and further details to come shortly
Simone de Beauvoir famously said “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.” In numerous languages and cultures the universal human being is the male, while the female is not; she is always specifically female.
No surprise therefore that when the Mishnah, the foundational document of rabbinic Judaism, uses the term adam, “person,” (or the plural bnei adam, “persons”), it usually means “a male person,” and not just any male person, but an adult Israelite male person, in other words a Jew, a male who observes the commandments of the Torah and follows the canons of rabbinic piety. In these passages the Mishnah is not deliberately excluding gentiles and women, or at least is not necessarily doing so, as much as it is simply paying them no attention. When the Mishnah is talking about obligations and prohibitions, for the most part women and gentiles are simply not part of its world-view.
Sometimes the locution adam intends to exclude women, as when it refers specifically to a husband in contrast with the wife. In other passages, however, the Mishnah, it seems, has deliberately chosen the locution adam in order to subtly include Israelite women. Indeed, sometimes adam is universal , that is, the Mishnah is talking about “people” in general, Jews and gentiles, men and women, alike.
All of this is background to an exegetical crux: when Avot 3:14 says haviv adam she nivra betzelem, “adam is beloved [before God] for having been created in the image [of God],” does the text intend to include or exclude women and gentiles?