Liv­ing with the Law: Gen­der and Com­mu­ni­ty Among the Jews of Medieval Egypt

December 19, 2022

Liv­ing with the Law explores the mar­i­tal dis­putes of Jews in medieval Islam­ic Egypt (1000 – 1250), relat­ing medieval gos­sip, mar­i­tal woes, and the voic­es of men and women of a world long gone. Prob­ing the rich doc­u­ments of the Cairo Geniza, a unique repos­i­to­ry of dis­card­ed paper dis­cov­ered in a Cairo syn­a­gogue, the book recov­ers the life sto­ries of Jew­ish women and men work­ing through their mar­i­tal prob­lems at home, with their fam­i­lies, in the streets of old Cairo, and in Jew­ish and Mus­lim courts. Despite a volu­mi­nous lit­er­a­ture on Jew­ish law, the every­day prac­tice of Jew­ish courts has only recent­ly begun to be inves­ti­gat­ed sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly. The expe­ri­ences of those at a legal, social, and cul­tur­al dis­ad­van­tage allow us to go beyond the image prop­a­gat­ed by legal insti­tu­tions and offer a view from below” of Jew­ish com­mu­nal life and Jew­ish law as it was lived.

Exam­in­ing the inter­ac­tions between gen­der and law in medieval Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties under Islam­ic rule, Oded Zinger con­sid­ers how women expe­ri­enced Jew­ish courts and the pres­sure they faced to relin­quish their mon­e­tary rights. The tac­tics with which women coun­tered this pressure―ranging from exploit­ing fam­i­ly ties to appeal­ing to Mus­lim courts―expose the com­plex rela­tion­ship between indi­vid­ual agency, gen­dered expec­ta­tions, and com­mu­nal author­i­ty. Zinger con­cludes that, more than mon­ey, edu­ca­tion, or lin­eage, it was the main­te­nance of a sup­port­ive net­work of social rela­tions with men that pro­tect­ed women at dif­fer­ent stages of their lives.

Discussion Questions

Oded Zinger’s Liv­ing with the Law mines long-lost doc­u­ments from the Cairo Geniza to exam­ine mar­i­tal dis­putes and rela­tions between hus­bands and wives at home, on the streets, and in the courts. Zinger uses indi­vid­ual sto­ries pulled from dozens of Judeo-Ara­bic sources to explore the role of gen­der, fam­i­ly, law, social expec­ta­tions, net­works of care, finan­cial arrange­ments, and agency and com­mu­ni­ty among Jews liv­ing in medieval Egypt. He pays par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to law as it was lived and expe­ri­enced,” rather than as it was devel­oped by legal­ists in nor­ma­tive texts.” Zinger argues that law itself was deeply com­mu­nal” in this context.

A series of chap­ters high­lights the nar­ra­tives of women who faced dif­fer­ent types of mar­i­tal chal­lenges. These micros­tud­ies shed light on the ways in which indi­vid­u­als nav­i­gat­ed the legal sys­tems avail­able to them in moments of per­son­al, famil­ial, and com­mu­nal crises. They also empha­size the impor­tant role that fam­i­ly played in this soci­ety, as well as the every­day nego­ti­a­tions of mar­ried life” nec­es­sary for its mem­bers. Shift­ing the focus away from the for­mal process­es of fam­i­ly for­ma­tion — match­mak­ing, engage­ment, mar­riage, and divorce — and toward the mar­i­tal dis­putes that occur between these moments of tran­si­tion, Zinger demon­strates in new and evoca­tive ways how men and women nav­i­gat­ed fam­i­ly life and the legal and gen­dered frame­works in which it operated.

Beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten and metic­u­lous­ly researched, this book adds con­sid­er­ably to our under­stand­ing of the Cairo Geniza’s doc­u­men­tary sources; the his­to­ry of Jews in Islam­ic con­texts; and the cen­tral­i­ty of fam­i­ly, gen­der, and law in the devel­op­ment of one Jew­ish community.