Unrequited Love: When Women Study the Talmud

Women Talmud scholars find different paths through a patriarchal text.

Susan Reimer-Torn
December 11, 2018
Illustration: Arielle Stein

IN RABBINIC LORE, there is a tale of a woman suspected by her husband of committing adultery and ordered to appear in Jerusalem to undergo the biblical sotah (“bitter waters”) ordeal. The ordeal consists of drinking dirty waters that have been mixed with ashes and the dissolved letters of God’s name. It’s a kind of trial-by-fire: If the woman is innocent, she will ingest the unsavory brew unscathed. If she is guilty as charged, her stomach will explode and she will not survive. Adultery is strictly defined in the rabbinic world as the offense of a married woman sleeping with someone other than her husband; men are not subject to the same censure.

In this story from Midrash Tanhuma, the woman decides to send a look-alike sister in her place. The substitute sister survives the ordeal, then returns home where the accused sister awaits her. They celebrate their successful ruse with a kiss of jubilance and solidarity—but the tiniest drop of the ritual waters on the returning sister’s lips is enough to poison the evasive sister and cause her death. Ruth Calderon, a feminist commentator on the Talmud, writes of the story, “It warns that anyone who tries to circumvent the law will pay with her life. Feminine loyalty will not triumph over the masculine rule of law.”

When a woman such as Calderon—or one of the many other female Talmudic scholars—delights in the Talmud, she is finding ways to love a body of work that does not love her. She is entering an ancient worldview that rarely sees women as anything more than wayward, if highly sexualized, children. She is applying her critical faculties to an androcentric tradition that denies her the status of full-fledged adulthood and suspects her of malignancy.

How to explain why many feminist Jewish women are drawn to reading, teaching and writing about the Talmud? Studying these texts was until recently the guarded preserve of Orthodox Jewish males. Today, Talmud study is attracting a far larger and, in some cases, heterodox audience. The burgeoning global daf yomi (“page of day”) movement—considered the world’s biggest book club, with online participants learning a folio of Talmud per day—attests to a broad democratization of Talmud readership. Educated women from across the religious spectrum account for a significant part of this new readership. What is the interchange between progressive women and this woman-hostile text? What is the takeaway when women with contemporary sensibilities enter the alienating and myopic world of rabbinic misogyny?


Rachel Adler, a passionate activist and respected scholar who was raised Orthodox but was later ordained as a Reform rabbi, is a vocal and unflinching critic of Talmudic texts and attitudes. For Adler, the inability of the Talmudic sages to see, much less escape, their sexist assumptions gives rise to sheer heartbreak. This heartbreak “is part of our inheritance,” she wrote in “The Virgin in the Brothel and Other Anomalies,” her iconic 1988 article in Tikkun. In that essay, Adler bemoaned the injustices and limitations of the rabbis’ world: “The curse of scholars is the delusion of transcending context, all the while being trapped in a frame to which they are oblivious.” For Adler, love of Talmud lives in constant tension with injury and outrage, creating a dynamic reminiscent of a dysfunctional but inseparable family.

Ruth Calderon, a former Israeli Knesset member who was raised secular, first encountered the Talmud as a college student, and went on to earn a PhD in Talmudic literature. She describes the emotion of discovering the Talmud as the “lure of longing” for “a wonderland . . . a homeland that we never knew.” (In her sabra upbringing, it was presumed that Israel would replace the supposedly moribund culture of the rabbinic diaspora.)

She created a national sensation when she read a story from the Talmud on the floor of the Knesset, arguing that the text belongs to the entire Jewish people, no matter their religious orientation. As an advocate for women’s rights, Calderon finds the Talmud’s treatment of women “immoral.” Yet in the introduction to her 2014 feminist rewriting of classic aggadic (storytelling) material, A Bride for One Night, she describes her choice “not to stay angry and frustrated.” “This is where I come from,” she writes. “I have no choice but to understand it because it is a part of me and I am a part of it.” Her passion for reconnection does not blind her to rabbinic misogyny—her love is simply stronger than her umbrage.

When Calderon relates the tale of the two sisters and the sotah ordeal, she is well aware that its male narrators are motivated by fear of both errant sexuality and women’s power—two interchangeable evils. She relates the story with its original ending intact, but then willfully imagines it ending differently. “I took the liberty of freezing the end of the story one moment prior to the sister’s arrival, just before the sisterly kiss turns into a kiss of death,” she writes, choosing to create an alternative universe where “sisterly solidarity is alive and flourishing as a force for life.” In her version, the subterfuge succeeds, the sisters survive, and the reader is invited to believe, along with her, in the possibility of “challenging oppressive legislation.”

Calderon’s creative tampering may seem to turn tradition on its head, but it is rooted in the tradition of midrash, in which the rabbis were forever rewriting stories, sometimes in order to introduce new theological perspectives. Calderon is thus a spokeswoman for the new generation of secular, feminist readers who reimagine a sadly limited socio-religious landscape while acknowledging it for what it is.


This year, the prestigious Sami Rohr prize was awarded to Ilana Kurshan whose memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink, interweaves Talmudic references with the mundane activities of the author’s life in Jerusalem, first as a divorced woman, then as a remarried wife and mother of four. Kurshan has made the sacred texts her own by filtering them through her experiences. When the birth of her twins and their nursing schedule keeps her home most of the time, she likens her shut-in experience to that of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his son, who lived in a cave for twelve years, hiding from the Romans. While jogging through the streets of Jerusalem each early morning, she listens to podcasts of the daf yomi, self-consciously acting out the Talmudic dictum, “If one is walking along his way and has no companion, he should occupy himself with Torah.”

A devoted subscriber to daf yomi, Kurshan does not seem offended by the rabbis’ objectification of women. She likens her experience to that of Virginia Woolf, a lone female figure, draped in long skirts, “on the all-male campus of Oxford, determined to make her mark on hostile territory.” Kurshan pictures Woolf as she describes herself in A Room of One’s Own, going through the card catalogue in the British Museum, coming across books about women that are all written by men. Unlike Woolf, who shuns men’s distorted portraits of women, Kurshan is keenly interested in what the rabbis have to say. Like Woolf, Kurshan is “flattered, vaguely” by all the attention: “After all, the rabbis devote a sixth of the Talmud—all of the tractate Nashim—to women.”

In contrast to Calderon, Kurshan (who was Calderon’s English translator) does not rewrite endings. Instead, she crosses gender lines and totally identifies with the men. Referring to a discussion of marriage contracts in tractate Ketubot, Kurshan says, “I identified not with the women whose dowries were being negotiated, but with the men who were doing the negotiating.”

This is no flippant declaration. Kushan explains how studying Talmud gave her pause “to reevaluate my own relationship with sexual identity in Judaism.” She reasons that there are many ways in which her personal qualities and daily activities would make her a man rather than a woman, according to the rabbis’ criteria: She owns property and lives independently, participating fully in the social and political life of her community; she places no premium on virginity and values herself most for the amount of Torah she has mastered. “In another era, that would have made me a man.”

Is this a case of identifying with the aggressor? Perhaps. It is also a postmodern rethinking of whether womanhood is a matter of biological reality or of the social and cultural roles we choose to inhabit. Kurshan believes that a 21st-century Jewish woman “has more in common with a Jewish man of rabbinic times than with his wife”—adding, as something of an afterthought, “insofar as one can identify with Talmudic men without conspiring in the oppression of women.” Others, like Rachel Adler, may linger longer on the word “insofar,” arguing that women cannot go very far in this direction without becoming conspirators in their own oppression.


There is, in fact, one woman named in the Talmud who more resembled the rabbis than their wives: Beruriah, who knew more Torah than most of the men in the rabbinic academy and was sometimes even able to outshine her revered husband, Rabbi Meir. He started out proud of her erudition, until she got too uppity and had to be suppressed.

In the same Tikkun essay, Adler accords the brilliant Beruriah none of Kurshan’s ease in crossing or even blurring gender lines. Rather, she insists on the absolute and tragic impossibility of a Beruriah ever doing so. Adler emphasizes that Beruriah is a problem and an irritant because she is a woman with capacities presumed to be specific to men. Adler sees the rabbis straining to deal with Beruriah, and writes in their panic-tinged voices (italics hers): “What if there was a woman who was just like us?”

It is, in Adler’s words, “paradoxically, precisely the anomaly of such a creature as Beruriah that rendered her interesting to the rabbis.” But they would not allow her to thrive. Her “bad end” is described by Rashi in the margins of the Talmud: Beruriah refuses to acknowledge the oft-repeated rabbinic dictum that women are untrustworthy. Finally, her husband—they are until then portrayed as an ideal couple—feels he must take drastic measures to curb her insubordination. To that end, Rabbi Meir instructs one of his students to seduce her. When, after initially resisting, Beruriah gives in, and then discovers it was all a plot devised by her own husband, she takes her own life. (As for Meir, he is exiled in disgrace.)

Adler dismisses those who would discredit this tale as implausible or incongruous. “The ugliness of the story haunts us precisely because it is credible, because we can imagine Beruriah’s rage and rebellion against the tradition.” And she homes in on a key point: The main reason the rabbis mistrust and exclude women is their ungovernable sexuality. How could Beruriah, who by virtue of being a woman embodies sexual havoc, possibly be part of the fraternal academy? She had all the intellectual qualifications, but no man could safely be in relationship with her. Therefore, she had to be discarded.

To Adler, Beruriah is every woman supplicant at the gates of Judaism’s androcentric world. “The originators of this text have come to the crux of the problem. Were there a woman like Beruriah, schooled in and committed to a tradition that views her as inferior, how could she resolve the paradox inherent in her loyalty to that tradition?”

Even if the paradox cannot be resolved, remedial measures might be taken. Calderon, in A Bride for One Night, suggests furnishing the fatally isolated Beruriah with the women mentors, colleagues, advocates and students she would need to survive, and urges us today to form just such a protective network against bullying and exclusion.

Today’s community of feminist readers does provide a protective network (minus the degree to which it inevitably bullies and excludes its own). Still, the Beruriah story continues to fuel an undercurrent of anxiety: Can a woman in the current academy safely be smarter than a man? What place will she then occupy in the social structure? Will she pay a terrible price for her confidence and acumen? And must she appear neutered, or asexual, to get by?


The Talmud is divided into two main strands: legal discussion (halakhah) and folksy narrative tales (aggadah). The eminent Talmud scholar Judith Hauptman has identified a third strand, “halakhic anecdotes,” which she defines as an “anecdote about someone who carries out the law.” In the examples Hauptman chooses, that “someone” is often a woman.

Hauptman takes a close look at the instances in the Talmud where an aggadic story immediately follows a legal discussion for the overt purpose of commenting upon it. “The Talmud tells you how the law is formulated, it puts it out there in a kind of beta version,” she explains. “Then life teaches you how to live it.” Her “halakhic anecdotes” especially examine the close interplay between the legal argumentation of men and the real-life testing and tweaking by women.

One of her examples involves the laws of niddah, regarding a menstruating woman. The rabbis are stringent in their prohibition of sex during a woman’s menstrual flow. First they outline a woman’s many household and spousal duties, including grinding the grain, baking the bread, washing the linen, breastfeeding, cooking, and supervising servants. Even a woman who has servants to perform these tasks in her place must herself serve her husband a nightly drink, turn down his bed, and wash his face, hands and feet. There is, however, a prohibition when it comes to the nights when a woman is having her period: she must not serve her husband his wine, as this is clearly a prelude to intimacy, which is forbidden as long as a woman is ritually “unclean.” Thus sayeth the law.

Next we get the narrative. We hear of women who do, in fact, serve their husbands their nightly beverage even when “unclean.” One woman serves it with her left hand rather than her habitual right; another places the cup on the cabinet. In this way the women respect the law, but do not leave their husbands to the possible attentions of another. Since the rabbis do not comment further, we assume that the women actually have the last word. In formally recognizing this dynamic, Hauptman has named a new category, one that fully credits women for adapting male-spawned law to real life.


Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, a distinguished professor of religious studies at Stanford University and an Orthodox Jew, was born in 1965 to a Christian German family in Dusseldorf, where she was taught to fear and despise the Jews. But young Charlotte had in fact never met a Jew. In university, she was curious about the culture that her country “obsessively set out to extinguish.”

What could explain such hatred? It is with this question in mind that she came to study Talmud. What began as an exercise in unlocking the secret of “otherness” gradually changed Fonrobert’s life, as she was increasingly absorbed, first by the text, then by the community. She eventually converted to Judaism. “That love for the Talmud came first,” she writes. “The ongoing reconstitution or redirection of myself in ethno-religious terms is a product of this love.”

Then she encountered “another conflict of commitments”—what to do when, through the lens of feminist criticism, this newly embraced world “all of a sudden is reconfigured as a man’s world and one does not want to see it as such”? Out of this crucible of contradictions, Fonrobert has become a leading feminist Talmud scholar. She applies gender-oriented critical skills to the text, with intriguing results. In her landmark doctoral thesis, Menstrual Purity, she analyzes Talmudic discussions, some of which reveal that women had more control over their own bodies than we might surmise.

Like Calderon and other feminists, Fonrobert champions a method of reading the text “against the grain,” an approach they credit to the literary theorist Walter Benjamin. Through a close study of language, or an awareness of lapses or contradictions, she explains how we can tease out “what the text hides.” Reading against the grain combs the text for subtle provocation, inconsistencies, stifled dissent, and messages that run counter to the text’s prevailing norms.

Doing so can divulge multiple levels of ironic meaning within a single short text. Adler demonstrates a perfect case in point: One day Beruriah encounters Rabbi Yossi the Galilean on the road. He asks her, “Which is the way to Lod?” She replies, “Do not the sages say avoid conversing at such length with a woman? You could just say: Which way Lod.” End of story.

Reading against the grain begins with a question: Why do the rabbis tell us of this exchange? Are they aware of the double and even triple ironies it contains? First, we see an esteemed man sounding awkward in his efforts to obey the rabbinic dictum of limiting conversation with women. He is then ridiculed by a woman who shows herself to be quicker-witted than he. Perhaps, we can’t help thinking, it is she who should not be wasting her time by speaking to him. Could this be the hidden message? Her response further ridicules the dictum by asking if he could not have made his curt overture even shorter. Adler feels that in telling this story, the rabbis are already warning readers of Beruriah’s capacity for subversion of their codes. But perhaps there is yet another layer: By including this tale, which mocks a rabbi, subtly ridicules the dictum, and displays a woman’s insight, were they not signaling a self-awareness that Adler doesn’t credit them with? Could it be that in this coded anecdote highlighting Beruriah’s subversive intelligence, the rabbis are breaking out of their framework and transmitting their own self-criticism?  


In the prologue to his book Unheroic Conduct, Daniel Boyarin, professor of Talmudic culture, declares, “I deeply love rabbinic texts and culture . . . My endeavor is to justify my love [for Talmud], that is, both to explain it and to make it just.” Boyarin means to justify all that he finds “deeply disturbing . . . and much of that has to do with the oppression of women.”

His process is reorienting for the context it provides, even if it falls short of redemptive. He notes the image of the non-athletic, non-macho, gentle and pale scholarly Jew, and also points out that Jewish women were aggressive in their dealings with the outside world. While her husband hunched and squinted over the text in the house of study, the typical woman was out hawking her wares or influencing policy in the marketplace.

But if the Jewish male, he continues, was identified by his prowess in studying Torah rather than by more conventionally male-identified activities, how could this “feminized” Jewish man distinguish himself from a woman? The answer is clear: by excluding women from all of the activities that conferred cultural and religious prestige on a Jewish man. Adler agrees when she reminds us that the sages themselves would “draw an analogy between their own experience of marginality and stigma in an often hostile [Roman] empire, and women’s vulnerability and powerlessness under patriarchal institutions.”

Feeling himself a kind of borderline male, more open than most men to his so-called feminine side, the rabbinic male had to distance himself from biological women. Perhaps he feared a floodgate of woman-identified sensibilities, giving credence to another theory that identifies an unconscious stream of repressed feminine thought running through the rabbinic tradition.

The Talmud is quite expressive of qualities often associated with the feminine: it is multilayered, nonlinear, highly associative, imaginative, emotional, and full of humanist sensibility. The Talmud is rife with fantastic tales, self-subversion, self-styled logic, and liberal polyphony. When the great scholar of the biblical unconscious, Avivah Zornberg, speaks of the transition from biblical thinking to the era of rabbinic law, she calls it “a shift from a masculine modality to a feminine one.” She describes the “feminine principle” that runs like an underground current in the Talmud, with its “passages and translations and fertile slippages of language that will constantly reimagine the Torah.”

Whether through the feminine unconscious or the work of real life women, feminist sensibilities enliven, challenge, decry and decode the Talmudic texts. Feminist readers submit to the emotional complexities of unrequited love—now and then giving in to total despair—to enter a realm of paradox, irony, malevolence, intimation, genius, and gender ambiguity. They are alert to hidden meanings and counter-currents while venturing to highlight women’s influence and save heroines in distress. Women readers have to struggle against assigned roles and insulting preconceptions, but despite outrage and heartbreak, they have not cut ties. Each woman working within the midrashic tradition maps out a circuitous pathway to a place that, for all its imperfections, she longs and labors to call home.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.