Have you ever been obsessed by a historical figure or a story and wondered why? This is what’s happening to me this summer.
Bruriah is the only woman mentioned several times by name in the Talmud. She is a woman singled out for her perspicacious mind. Bruriah, 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. But what is Bruriah to me or I to Bruriah that I should obsess on her?
Bruriah is unique. She is a woman recognized by the rabbinic academy as a scholar of great acumen. It is said that her husband, the eminent Rabbi Meier Ba’al Ha’ness, turned to her for the solution to ethical dilemmas. It was Rabbi Meier’s habit to say to his colleagues, “Rightly did Bruriah tell us…” and it seems that in many cases her opinions were adopted.
We yeshiva girls heard a bit about Bruriah while growing up, but I don’t remember any of us aspiring to be like her. Bruriah is depicted as a sharp-tongued, acerbic harpy all too 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.
Bruriah’s singular fame lives on. 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.
There is a story about Bruriah told by the great medieval commentator Rashi. It is a story worthy of the scandal sheets, a headline for the Talmudic tabloids. It was a story told to me by Rabbi Roly, a tale he wants me to hear. I return to it again and again. Perhaps by writing about it, I will understand its power. Stay tuned, not for its shock values, but for its stunning, hard-won insights.
Bruriah had a grave flaw. Who among us does not? Her shortcoming according to her male “peers” was her relentless scoffing at the rabbinic dictum, the one that faults women for lacking gravitas: The word applied to women is “lightheaded” or easily swayed. Conversation with women is to be avoided as women are notoriously weak-minded. Bruriah’s refusal to bow to this canard finally exasperates (or more precisely, embarrasses?) her prominent husband. Troubled by her insubordination, Rabbi Meier vows that Bruriah will end up acquiescing to the truth of the dictum.
To this end, the great sage 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. Rashi says that in remorse, her husband, Rabbi Meier, goes off into exile.
There are those who reject Rashi’s story, rushing to provide an alternative narrative in explanation of R. Meier’s flight out of Palestine. Think what you will of R. Meier and of womankind’s capacity for fidelity, no one I know has ever dismissed the commentator Rashi as a lightweight. I return to thinking about this again and again, clearly there is some as yet unidentified nugget of this story that is of great personal concern.