Brooklyn BookBeat: Talmud scholar to speak at Park Slope Jewish Center
Maggie Anton, acclaimed author of the “Rashi’s Daughters” series, is coming to Park Slope Jewish Center on April 21 to discuss her book “Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Book I: Apprentice” (Plume Original). In this novel that blends third-century Babylonian history with elements of magic, Anton’s protagonist, Hisdadukh, comes of age through her intertwinement with ancient sorcery.
Amidst a battle between Rome and Zoroastrian Persia, Babylonia encounters turmoil. After the devastation of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, Talmudic sage Rav Hisda – Hisdadukh’s father – attempts to assert a new Jewish identity. Hisdadukh sets out to become a charasheta, or enchantress, studying with her brother’s wife, Rahel.
After marrying Rami, one of her father’s best students, Hisdadukh is confronted by Abba, another of her father’s students, who also admires the young woman’s beauty and spirit. When her happiness is thwarted by a sequence of tragic events, Hisdadukh is forced to consider whether her path lies in the way of sorcery.
Anton’s book enlivens ancient Babylonia, revealing its distinct history and culture through the eyes of a young woman.
The event will begin at 1 p.m. Park Slope Jewish Center is located at 1320 8th Ave in Park Slope.
Read on for a conversation with Maggie Anton (Originally developed by Page-Turner Publicity and Maggie Anton)
1. Throughout history, many religions have prevented women from fully participating in religious life and education. Some women paved their own paths and incorporated magical practices within their religious traditions. What function does magic serve historically for women desirous of religious participation?
In ancient times, both men and women practiced magic, although men often did this as part of their priestly duties in an ‘official’ religion. While some religions had priestesses, women living under patriarchal religions were forced to practice independent sorcery, with the majority involved in benign magic practices such as healing and protection from demons. As long they remained within these boundaries and didn’t challenge the male religious hierarchy, women magic users were permitted their own adjunct spirituality.
2. Your new series focuses on how wars and invasions left early Jewish scholars struggling to establish new Jewish traditions. How has religion been shaped by wars over the centuries?
I claim expertise mainly about Judaism, which has been greatly shaped by wars. In particular, the Talmud was created by the early rabbis from the vacuum left when Rome destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in the first century. Until that time, much of Jewish observance revolved around Temple rituals and sacrifices. Afterward, synagogues became the center of Jewish life and rabbis replaced priests as religious leaders.
Until the Muslim conquest in the seventh century, Zoroastrianism was the religion of Babylonia and Persia, while Rome was a Christian empire. Scholars believe that after fighting each other for five hundred years, Rome and Persia were too exhausted to repel the Arab invaders, leading to Northern Africa, the Middle East and Persia becoming Muslim.
3. Who is Rav Hisda? What inspired you to write a novel about his daughter? What more can we expect from this new series?
Rav Hisda is one of the Talmud’s most prominent sages. He lived in 3rd-century Babylonia, after the destruction of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, where a handful of rabbis began creating the Talmud – the text that has determined the rules and traditions of Judaism for over a millennium.
I chose to write about his daughter Hisdadukh after encountering a fascinating passage in the Talmud where Rav Hisda brings his two best students before her. Though she is merely a child, he asks which one she wants to marry, and astonishingly, she replies, “Both of them.” Even more astonishingly, that is what eventually happens. First she marries the older student, has some children with him, and later, after she’s widowed, she marries the other one. Any girl who declares that she wants to marry both her suitors deserves to have her story told.
In addition, the third and fourth centuries are crucial in the history of Europe and the Middle East as Rome, fast becoming Christian, battles Zoroastrian Persia for world dominance. Yet few people are familiar with this time period.
4. Although your novels are set in ancient times when women weren’t given the same opportunities as men, your heroine struggles with some modern women’s issues–the right to women’s independence, acceptance to participate in religious life, and the freedom to love whom she chooses. How were you able to work within her circumstances to create such a strong-willed and independent character? Has women’s social progress been aided or hampered by religion?
Rav Hisda’s daughter is the woman mentioned more often in the Talmud than any other, one endowed with wealth and wisdom. Thus she has opportunities not available to the average poor and illiterate woman of her time. Still she is constrained by her gender in that, despite all her education and intelligence, she can never be a rabbi. By learning to be an enchantress, she enters a profession where being independent, yet religious, is an asset.
However most women throughout history, unfortunately, have been hampered socially by religion, rather than aided.
5. The incantations and spells that you use in your novel are real. In fact, many come from Jewish, Christian, and pagan Incantation Bowls, amulets, and magical instruction manuals that archaeologists excavated from Iraq, Israel, Egypt and Greece. Can you tell me a little bit about these items, the purpose they served, and how they inspired you to write this novel?
At first I hadn’t expected magic to play a significant role in Rav Hisda’s Daughter. My initial glimpse of this world came when, looking for historical sources of names for female characters, I discovered research on something called Babylonian Incantation Bowls. Thousands of these bowls had been unearthed in what is now Iraq and dated to the 4th-6th century. Most of their spells were for benign purposes – healing the sick, protecting children and pregnant women from harm, guarding against demons and the Evil Eye. Clearly the product of educated Jews, they called upon Jewish angels and often contained biblical verses.
While insisting that sorcery was the province of women, the Talmud permitted all sorts of magical practices when the purpose was benevolent. So it made sense that amulets and incantation bowls might be written by literate women from rabbinic families. When I read in the Talmud that Rav Hisda knew spells and that Hisdadukh knew methods to protect her husband from demons, it gave me the idea that she was an enchantress herself.
Which meant I’d be writing about her training and the kind of magic others were using.
6. The Bible and other religious texts call for the death of women who practice sorcery. Yet many in the ancient world practiced their skills freely. Is it fair to say that there was some acceptance of these women on the part of society and religious leaders at the time?
The Talmudic sages lived in a world where highly educated people accepted that disease and injuries were caused by demons and the Evil Eye, and that magic was real and effective. Though the Bible says, “You shall not allow a sorceress to live,” the rabbis found many rationales to permit magic practice. The most important of these were: to save a life, which encompassed all healing or protective magic, and to counteract witchcraft or evil sorcery, which meant one must learn all about the subject in order to ‘fight fire with fire,’ so to speak.
An enchantress skilled in these magic techniques was in great demand. And since many people recovered from their injuries and illnesses, most pregnant women did not die in childbirth, and the majority of children survived childhood, spells to heal and protect them were considered successful.
7. What role, if any, does magic play in our religious cultures today?
If one defines magic as “the power to influence the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces,” then the boundary between prayers and spells appears rather fuzzy. Yet even where the boundary is clear, magic is still part of modern culture. A quick Internet search will turn up a wide variety of amulets for sale, some quite similar to those of Rav Hisda’s time. And should my novel become popular, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jewish artisans started manufacturing modern incantation bowls.
8. Why do you think some women maintain the inequality status quo and actively support edicts that infringe on women’s rights to education, freedom, and religious equality?
Some women believe their unequal position is God’s will, particularly uneducated women. With no knowledge of what their sacred texts really say, these women are unable to challenge what male clerics tell them. Women are also aware that many men are intimidated by an intelligent woman, that men won’t marry a woman who is more learned than he is. And unfortunately, woman can be just as afraid of, and resistant to, change as men are.
9. What do you think can be done to combat the entrenched, conservative, paternalistic views that subjugate women in major religions around the world?
I’m no expert on Christianity, but I can quickly say that since Catholicism’s changes must come from the top, i.e. the pope, Catholic women must wait until an enlightened man is elected to that office. The key to changes in the Jewish and Muslim world will come when women are sufficiently educated in their religion that they can challenge the paternalistic ideas from within, after they know the traditions and legal opinions that will support their inclusion.
10. Do you think that establishing a dialogue between women of different faiths is necessary to help them achieve equal standing in the religious communities?
It can’t hurt. And when each group shares the progress they’ve made, the others will be encouraged. But each religion requires its own kind of attack to overthrow the status quo.
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Maggie Anton is the award-winning author of historical fiction series “Rashi’s Daughters” and “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” as well as a Talmud scholar with expertise in Jewish women’s history. She was born Margaret Antonofsky in Los Angeles, California, where she still resides. Raised in a secular household, she reached adulthood with little knowledge of her Jewish religion. In the early 1990’s, Anton began studying in a women’s Talmud class taught by feminist theologian Rachel Adler. Twenty years later, she continues her learning individually and with a study-partner.
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