Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bruriah - and Female Torah Scholars

My class on Aggadah at Orot ended yesterday, and one of the students gave a model lesson as her class assignment. She chose to share some of the Aggadic statements about Bruriah, the well-known historic figure from the era of the Tanaim (the rabbis who appear in the Mishnah). I must confess: I has been aware of Bruria's existence (and the fact that they named a high school after her), but I somehow missed some of the sources that I'm going to share with you in this post.
The Wikipedia entry on her is actually quite complete, so I'll quote it.
Bruriah (Hebrew: ברוריה) is one of several women quoted as a sage in the Talmud. She was the wife of the Tanna Rabbi Meir and the daughter of Rabbi Hananiah Ben Teradion, who is listed as one of the "Ten Martyrs." She is greatly admired for her breadth of knowledge in matters pertaining to both halachah and aggadah, and is said to have learned from the rabbis 300 halachot on a single cloudy day (Tractate Pesachim 62b). Her parents were put to death by the Romans for teaching Torah, but she carried on their legacy.
Bruriah was very involved in the halachic discussions of her time, and even challenges her father on a matter of ritual purity (Tosefta Keilim Bava Kamma 4:9). Her comments there are praised by Rabbi Judah Ben Bava. In another instance, Rabbi Joshua praises her intervention in a debate between Rabbi Tarfon and the sages, saying "Bruriah has spoken correctly" (Tosefta Keilim Bava Metzia 1:3).
She was also renowned for her sharp wit and often caustic jibes. The Talmud (Tractate Eruvin 53b) relates that she once chastised Rabbi Jose, when he asked her "באיזו דרך נלך ללוד" ("By which way do we go to Lod?") claiming that he could have said the same thing in two [Hebrew] words, "באיזה ללוד" ("By which to Lod?") instead of four, and thereby keep to the Talmudic injunction not to speak to women unnecessarily.
Then we came to the issue of Bruria's death. Back to Wikipedia:
The Talmud, in Tractate Avodah Zarah (18b), mentions that in the middle of his life, Rabbi Meir fled to Babylonia, and mentions two possible motivations. The second of these is "the Bruriah incident" (מעשה דברוריא), a phrase which is not explained. It is left to the classical commentaries to fill in this lacuna; Rashi (ad loc.) relates the following story. Bruriah made light of the Talmudic assertion that women are "light-minded". (נשים דעתן קלות) To vindicate the Talmudic maxim, Rabbi Meir sent one of his students to seduce her. Though she initially resisted the student's advances, she eventually acceded to them. When she realized what she had done (כשנודע לה), she committed suicide out of shame. (Other sources have it that she fell ill emotionally due to shame, and a group of Rabbis prayed for her death and peace.) Rabbi Meir, in turn, exiled himself from Israel out of shame and fled to Babylonia.
For some reason, I had never heard of this story before. It appears exactly as described in Rashi Avoda Zara. And I said yesterday and write today: I don't believe it to be true. I also don't even believe that Rashi wrote that story at all. Yes, it does appear in the text of Rashi. But any regular student of the Gemara will notice different commentaries amending and changing parts of the text of Rashi on a semi-regular basis. Also, let's not forget that Rashi's commentary was hand-written, and copied. Is there a chance that a hand-written comment on the side of a Rashi text was accidentally copied and then included as part of the original text? I think that there is.
Yet, the primary reason I refuse to accept that the story happened, and that Rashi wrote it, is that it defies belief. What rabbi - actually what husband or human being - would encourage a student to test his wife by seducing her? Who would do such a thing? How does that relate in any way to the idea of נשים דעתן קלות? What would such a thing even prove? It could not have happened, and I don't believe Rashi could have considered it a possibility either.

Yet, this question - what happened to Bruriah - is crucial for a modern-day question that the Modern Orthodox world finds itself grappling with. Essentially, how do we relate to the well-known rabbinic dictates that seem to denigrate women? How do we address comments like נשים דעתן קלות - "women are light-minded" and כל המלמד את בתו תורה כאלו מלמדה טפלות - "anyone who teaches his daughter Torah; it is as if he taught her foolishness"? In the story of Bruriah, her scoffing at the words of Chazal ultimately led to her downfall. Thus, as the story appears, it sends a warning: don't dismiss Chazal so fast. They articulated a deeper truth that Briuriah failed to grasp, and that failure led to her destruction.
On the other hand, if the story never happened, then we turn our attention back to the positive comments about her Torah scholarship and the honor she is accorded in rabbinic literature. Then, we can view the rabbinic statements about women as general observations about their time (which I'm sure were accurate), but not as rules to live by. After all, they were willing to make an exception for the very capable and Torah-knowledgeable woman they knew personally.
This, of course, leads us to today. If Bruriah could be so respected by the Sages so many centuries ago, why are we so scared of women who wish to take leadership roles in the Orthodox world? Why do female Torah scholars frighten us so? On the hand, if Rashi's story really did happen, we must do our utmost to steer clear of this dangerous model of female leadership, in order to avoid the inevitable calamity that will ensure.
Who's right? I guess that depends on your position regarding the "Story of Bruriah" as it appears in Rashi. Did you think it really happened, or not?