I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Dvora Weisberg, Director, School of Rabbinic Studies; Associate Professor of Rabbinical Literature in Los Angeles, about her latest book, Levirate Marriage and the Family in Ancient Judaism (Brandeis University Press, 2009)
SFS: Dvora, congratulations on the publication of your book and on its being honored by Jewish Book Council as a finalist for the Women’s Studies Barbara Dobkin Award.
Tell me, what is Levirate Marriage? And why should we care about it?
DEW: Levirate marriage is union between a widow of a childless man and, in Jewish tradition, his brother. In other cultures, it could be another man in the deceased’s family. The purpose of the union is to produce children for the deceased. While in Judaism, this union is a marriage, in other cultures it might not be.
The reason that I care about it is that it helps us understand how cultures respond to a catastrophic death in the family. It is almost always practiced in cultures that are patrilineal or patriarchal; in such cultures the death of the man causes a breakdown of the family structure. The death of a woman, while upsetting, would not cause a change to the family structure.
SFS: Who do these laws protect/benefit?
DEW: Depending on how they’re practiced, (they’re practiced differently in different cultures) it can benefit the widow who is immediately absorbed back into her husband’s family; the deceased because he can now have children through a surrogate; or the larger family because it allows the family to reconfigure and stabilize after the death. It will depend on how the laws play out both in other cultures and within Judaism over time and in different places. It’s interesting for the scholar to see how the family structure and particularly the role of women has changed.
SFS: We tend to think of pre-modern Jewish families as large extended clans, but you found that much of Rabbinic literature focuses on the nuclear family and on the needs of the individual.
DEW: Part of my argument in this book is that the Biblical family is usually seen as an extended family and the laws focus on that extended family. But the Rabbinic tradition focuses much more on the nuclear family.
SFS: How much choice do individuals have in the decision to go through with the levirate marriage?
DEW: The Biblical law focuses on the deceased’s “right” to have a child. The widow and her brother-in-law are expected to cooperate. But in rabbinic literature, the rights of the living people involved are given precedence. They may make the decision to go through with the levirate marriage or not.
SFS: You mention that many scholars look at the surrounding cultures when studying rabbinics – what does that perspective bring to your work?
DEW: Particularly when you’re looking at the rabbinic period, you can see major differences between the Palestinian laws which are influenced by the Greco-Roman society as opposed to the Babylonian which are influenced by Zoroastrian culture where a form of levirate marriage was practiced, as well as polygamy. This shows that Judaism has been influenced by its surrounding environment. Many scholars of Judaism are surprised to learn that forms of levirate marriage were practiced by other cultures.
SFS: Is there any lesson for families today?
DEW: I think that the really important thing that this study shows is that family structure is not static and that it changes over time and in response to different circumstance. And even within a culture there can be multiple shades and nuances in the definition of family. When I talk about the rabbis addressing the “nuclear” family (mother, father, children), that doesn’t mean that other forms of family don’t exist. Different family members are included in mourning customs, incest laws, and inheritance laws. We have a tendency to think that “family” means one thing but, “family” can mean multiple things within a society and families are always changing.
SFS: Thank you!