Researchers of Jewish History dealing with the topic of women’s character and status in Medieval Jewish texts drew their information mainly from Rabbinical Responsa and tended to neglect other types of literature: sermons and Biblical commentaries. Responsa were a primary source for two reasons—convenience and availability of the material. However, this type of literature was written out of necessity and dealt with the problematic situations in a woman’s life, whether with regard to her private life (as for instance in matters of marriage or divorce), her financial situation or other difficult issues. It may be possible to put together a clearer picture of women and their position in the Middle Ages, including their treatment by the men of their immediate surroundings, by examining and researching the vast literature of sermons and Biblical commentaries.Using an interpretation of Chapter 31 of the book of Proverbs (“Woman of Valor”), the preacher draws an image of the ideal woman and uses it to present his opinion on women, their shortcomings and their virtues. The main topic that preachers and interpreters discussed was the question of the perfection of women’s intellectual souls. As women did not usually acquire great intellectual learning, it stands to reason that they could not achieve perfection. Therefore, replacements were created that allowed women’s perfection to surpass that of men’s.
Our knowledge of the nature of medieval Jewish public sermons is limited and our conclusions mostly inferential. Nonetheless, based upon the sermon literature and through analysis of various introductions and manuals for preachers of the time, we can fairly accurately reconstruct the oral sermon. We know where and when sermons were delivered, their content, the characteristics of the various preachers, the expectations of the listeners and the efforts the preachers made to make their sermons appealing to a diverse audience. Inevitably, over the course of centuries, both the form and the content of sermons changed. This was in response to the shifting needs and desires of audiences and reflects the changes in orientation of the various periods, such as the move from philosophically based sermons to those with Kabbalistic or Halakhic content.