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Tales from the Talmud
by Susan Reimer-Torn
I’M OBSESSED with a woman from the Talmud named Bruriah.
She is the only woman mentioned several times by name in the Talmud. She was a woman singled out for her perspicacious mind. She was a noted female scholar of the turbulent 2nd century, a time when the Jews of Palestine struggled under the might of the brutally repressive Roman Empire.
According to Rashi, she came to a bad end. Her despair, after being cruelly betrayed not by the Romans but by her own, was so bottomless that she committed suicide.
Bruriah is, uniquely, a woman recognized by the ancient rabbinic academy as a scholar of great acumen. It is said that her husband, the eminent Rabbi Meir Ba’al Ha’ness (Master of the Miracle), turned to her for the solution to ethical dilemmas. It was Rabbi Meir’s habit to say to his colleagues, “Rightly did Bruriah tell us...” — and it seems that in many cases her opinions were adopted.
IN MY ORTHODOX CHILDHOOD, we yeshiva girls heard a bit about Bruriah, but I don’t remember any of us aspiring to be like her. She is depicted as a sharp-tongued, acerbic harpy, perfectly willing to put down victimized men. No little girl I knew found that sort of belligerence attractive, even if, from time to time, in extremis, we resorted to same.
These days, there are schools of learning for Orthodox girls that carry her name. Yet no single figure illustrates better than Bruriah the shockingly stunted emotional intelligence with which distinguished rabbis treated a challenging woman.
Bruriah, Rashi tells us, had a grave flaw: her relentless scoffing at the rabbinic dictum that faults women for lacking gravitas. The word frequently applied to women in the Talmud is “lightheaded,” easily swayed. Conversation with women is therefore to be avoided, as they are notoriously weak-minded. Bruriah’s refusal to bow to this canard finally exasperates (or, perhaps more precisely, embarrasses?) her prominent husband. Troubled by her insubordination, he vows that Bruriah will end up acquiescing to the truth of the dictum.
To this end, Rabbi Meir sets up one of his students to sexually seduce his wife. (Yes, you read that right.) It seems that after much resisting, Bruriah finally gives in — not to the truth of the despised dictum, but to the young student’s charms. When Bruriah learns that the seduction was a set-up by her husband, she takes her own life. In remorse, says Rashi, Rabbi Meir then goes off into exile.
RECENTLY ONE NIGHT, I found myself in a special class for mental-health practitioners who are observant Jews seeking to link psychotherapy and Jewish thought. I am all in favor of such synthesis, and I found the exploration to be of journalistic interest, too. The topic of one presentation was “Despair,” and the tale of Bruriah was among the biblical and Talmudic stories we read.
When a woman (presumably an Orthodox shrink) wearing an earnest expression, a shapeless long skirt, and a tight head covering, suggested that Bruriah killed herself because she was ashamed of what she did, I found my temper rising. (I am not known for my self-restraint.) Although I was just a lay observer of the discussion, I raised my hand and asked: Does anyone here imagine the depths of the betrayal Bruriah suffered?
She rose above what she knew of men — even or especially the learned sages who populated her world. She knew of their pitiful inability to get comfortable in the presence of a woman who was at the very least their equal. She lashed out, but she lived among them; she provoked but ultimately she accommodated their weakness. She traded skillfully in their currency, managing to push the limits of learning and still land within bounds, mostly on her feet. She scoffed, she upbraided, but she forgave. She outshone, but she tolerated. While she was well aware of the fault-lines, she shared their faith in a certain world order.
I looked around at men and women who professed to promote mental health. How far would they go, how shockingly would their empathy be obscured by their allegiance to a frozen-in-time assumption about a certain world order?
Bruriah, I said to the group, took her own life out of rage. She cut short her earthly experience because of her unbearable disillusionment and the inevitable rage that would engender. After a lifetime of glimpsing yet looking away; seeing the chasm yet reaffirming the world order; sniping but not shooting to kill; making herself small even as her wisdom and umbrage grew large. Then one day she is naked — ve’at erom ve’erya — and there is no covering up all that has been exposed. The rabbis say that illicit uncovering of genitals is one of the three sins whose avoidance calls for giving up your life. But I do not believe she killed herself in expiation of mortal sin. She ended her life naked, transgressive, disgraced, with bruises harshly exposed. Still unable to turn her rage against others, she turned it against herself.
The foundational myth of a traditional Jewish upbringing (and for that matter just about all traditional upbringings) is that men are more central than women, while women are created by God to be men’s servants and helpmates. In Orthodox families, fathers run households, brothers have the rightful portion of leadership and learning, and, until recently, only the most exceptional of Bruriah-type daughters partake in a portion of leftovers.
Withal, there is a subterranean, unspoken counter-knowledge, a heterodox truth alluded to in whispers, hinted at in hushed laughter. We daughters live in daily awe of the discreet strength of our mothers, much as we frequently intuit the fragility of our fathers. We understand that the established order has been imposed in order to restore to men a power-base they do not come by naturally. In my childhood home, as in many others, the intimation of this reversal of assigned attributes had to go underground. It was far too subversive to be spoken, much less explored.
A poet I admire, Muriel Rukeyser, once said, “If one woman would tell the truth about her life, the world would split open.” Perhaps it already has.
Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return, published by our own Blue Thread Books and Music. She writes regularly for The Jewish Week.