June 7, 2007
Beruriah, the Soul of Things: the Impact of Interpretation
The author departs from the interpretation of Rashi concerning the destinies of Beruriah and Rabbi Meir (Avodah zarah, 18b), and the journey focuses on that exegesist’s modus operandi in his interpretative method. She invites us to discover the bearing the precedent of the Beruriah case has had on women’s organic access to the scholarly world of our people. By sharing some paradigmatic portraits of this exceptional woman, she supports a question concerning the original intention behind the parshan: Could it have been to draw attention to conflicting aspects of Rabbi Meir’s behavior towards his wife? Or would it have been to sanction Beruriah on account of the complexity of her persona? Perhaps we still had a few centuries and sufferings to go for attention to shift away from Beruriah’s supposed guilt and onto Rabbi Meir’s responsibility. “Why is there not a single character in this novel whose nature might console, might put the reader at ease with a good show?” Sainte-Beuve kept on protesting to Flaubert. The author of Madame Bovary replied that it was something very different that motivated him: “I have always made an effort to get into the soul of things.”
“In any event”—she tells us—“it is not clear to me which side of the moon is the dark one, and this perush’s richness lies, perhaps, in awakening us enough to be capable of assimilating its change of light.”
By Judith Golimstok
Counter to those maxims to which any basic handbook on the art of writing would refer, here is the end of the story: two possibilities, both tragic and bitter, the ways out are lateral and dark: suicide or exile. Perhaps, however, the decision to start with the ending is intimately tied to the contradiction inherent in our protagonist’s intellectual centeredness throughout her life, her light, and the way, bordering on the absurd, in which her undoing is narrated: One time [Beruriah] mocked the Sages [over their] saying, “Women are light-headed” (Kiddushin 80b, Shabbat 33b). [Rabbi Meir] said to her: “By your life, you will ultimately affirm their words.” He instructed one of his disciples to seduce her. [The student] urged her for many days, until she consented. When the matter became known to her she strangled herself, and Rabbi Meir fled out of disgrace.
Rashi to Avodah zarah
These few lines suffice to introduce the two figures with whom our present reflections originate: Beruriah and Rabbi Meir (who, moreover, was the former’s husband), as well as the stage upon which their lives took place: the world of scholarly love of wisdom and the Torah. In the following paragraphs we shall be going past some significant episodes illuminating the personality of our protagonist and its implications for those around her and those who came after. Rashi: just the anecdote this time
Indulge me, for the time being, in going back to this anecdote with which Rashi confronts us. It is now some years back that I read this interpretation for the first time; on successive occasions it awakened my surprise, skirting around the question and the anger, then, as is so often the case with the mastery of his perushim
, to plunge me into the question anew. The aspects of this anecdote that, as I now of course know, are disturbing not only to me are twofold: The first concerns Rashi’s mode of working with a text; it is more than customary for him to cite earlier sources lending support to his interpretations. Here, he merely tells the anecdote.
If not knowing, then surely intuiting the consequences to Beruriah’s reputation his interpretation would effect, Rashi chose under such conditions to make them public all the same.
Why did he do it? Any attempt at an answer would obviously be speculative and unfair on account of it. Nevertheless, for me, the crack that needed filling was how far removed from the modus operandi
of Rashi’s interpretative work the whole affair seems to be. Consoling my spirits, a while back, I came across a possible—and to my mind more than likely—answer. Out of a desire to likewise console the spirits of those who have labored thus far in the text, I can tell you that R. Zevi Hirsch Chajes (AKA Maharatz Chayes) in a brief comment in Chapter 31 (pp. 237-238) of his Mevo Ha-Talmud
has it that “all such stories relating to various Talmudical sages as reflect no honor upon them [. . .] have been removed from our editions of the Talmud, but might still be reflected in the manuscripts or traditions available to the
Geonim and early
Rishonim. Thus, for example, the
Halakhos Gedolos contains a story about how Mar Shmuel's father almost succumbed to a certain Median woman. Similarly, R. Chajes suggests, the story of Beruriah’s fate was removed from the Talmud by an early editor but Rashi recorded the tradition in order to explain the cryptic passage about R. Meir.
(2)It would all have been a different story...
My uneasiness consoled with regard to the exhaustive aspect of Rashi’s interpretative work, another area of focus opened up around the—regrettable—repercussions of the episode’s having been told as regards the normative relationship women have had with world of knowledge and knowing represented in the study of the Scriptures. We listen to the words of Rabbi Chaim David Azulay (Hida, Eretz Israel) who comes to shed light on this dark, or perhaps we should say, obscured
In the eighteenth century he wrote the following in his responsa collection, Tuv Ayin
In the beginning the opinion was that the halachah is not in accordance with Rabbi Eliezer [who said: “whosoever teaches his daughter Torah, it is as if he teaches her
tiflut”, and they would teach Oral Torah to the women, and they learned this from the case of Beruriah. But because of what happened to Beruriah, they agreed that the halachah is in accordance with Rabbi Eliezer.
Obviously, and particularly where sensitive areas and indiscreetly discarded women’s garments are concerned, one button is representative of all the others, and thus the anecdote with which Rashi confronts us has served to defend several centuries of prohibitions, even though his intention may not have been woman’s outright exclusion. (Still, I can’t help remembering that this exegesist always upheld a positive attitude towards women, one expressed both in his decisions or legal rulings and the interpretation of the Creation in his exegesis of Bereshit.) Swallowing the Bitter Waters
We now venture further into this framework, making sure not to get in above our heads (my allusion to water you will presently understand; smilingly, I hope), wherein we are given the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, which was the basis for the Halacha ultimately settled on:
Hence declared Ben Azzai: A man is under the obligation to teach his daughter the Torah, so that if she has to drink [of the bitter waters], she may know that the
zechut [merit] is in her favor. [. . .] R. Eliezer says: whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her tiflut. R. Abbahu said: What is R. Eliezer's reason? Because it is written: I, wisdom have made subtlety my dwelling, i.e., when wisdom enters a man subtlety enters with it.
Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 21b
Coincidentally and paradoxically, this paragraph, which introduces the debate over whether to teach the Torah to one’s daughters, shows up in the middle of the debate over the proper verification procedure with respect to a husband’s suspicions of infidelity on the part of his wife, and appears to be unconnected to the actual issue of Torah study. (Those curious to know “the bitter truth” about the Sotah
procedure will find a complete description at 5:14-31.)
The connection between sexuality and knowledge, both essential aspects of the hierarchically differentiated regime to which we men and women have found ourselves subjected, rests upon the Sages’ Talmudic understanding of the precise meaning of the (slippery and elusive) term tiflut
derives from the root tafel
, insipid, and, used figuratively, refers to secondary things, to insubstantiality, and to needs.
Thus, it is in burying ourselves in the many and varied interpretations of this term, that we probably will encounter the differing interpretations of the words of Rabbi Eliezer.
Rashi, continuing along, and accentuating still further, the lines of Rabbi Abbahu says “teaches her tiflut [. . .] because it is as if by means of it that woman were able to grasp the subtlety to conduct her affairs secretively.”
(4) Some translations use the term “lascivious”, leaving it clear that Rashi’s interpretation, in the context in which it appears, refers to secretive affairs, i.e., to a woman’s infidelity, betrayal, etc., towards her husband. And Rabbi Ovadia de Bertinoro, following Rashi and in the context of the debate, adds that subtlety is obviously related to indecent attitudes towards the sexual—“as if he teaches her tiflut
,” etc., relates to sexual relations.Noblesse oblige: other voices
The light, or the darkness
far more, that history sheds on the women’s ties to knowledge and study of the texts, finds in the voice of Rabbi Eliezer the majority opinion. Honor and nobility oblige; I should like to share with you some of the other voices that coexisted alongside established principle, but that opened windows to the fresh air of possibility.
Rambam suggests two ways of approach based on a double differentiation: on the one hand, he makes the distinction between study of the Written Law and of the Oral Law, indicating that the restriction should be applied to the latter realm; one the other, he tells us that among women there will be some (not many, since he leaves the majority behind on the other riverbank) with “cognitive skills directed towards proper learning.”(5)
Nor was Rambam the only one. Rabbi Yitzchak Arama proposed an interpretation based on the two names by which the text refers to women isha
, stressing that, in as much as she was formed out of ish
, like “him she can understand and know in matters of thinking and mercy.”
And the road continued to wind past the contributions of the Ashkenazi poskim
(as manifested in the Sefer Chassidim
), (7) the interpretations of Rabbi Yitzchak of Corbeil in France (Semak Sefer Mitzvot Katan
), and Riaz in thirteenth century Italy who ruled in favor of women studying “regardless of the fact that woman’s calling is not study [. . .] if they wish to teach her, they may.”
The fact that the person writing these reflections down is among those who mostly “don't have the mentality for learning,” is a clear sign that voices directed at opening formal studies up to women have undergone a process of expansion.Snapshots
Even so, it is not clear whether we consensually agree on the attribute “lamentable” for describing the bearing the precedent of the Beruriah case has had on women’s organic access to the scholarly world of our people. What will not be doubted, though, are precisely such condensed aspects incarnate in her figure, that crisscross textures within one and the same being, which, up until her appearance on the scene, had never dared to openly cohabitate with the public sphere: Wisdom, perseverance, erudition, the respect of the sages on account of her opinions on Halachic matters, piety, intelligence, and mischievousness, all in the body of a woman. Madame de Staël (9) must have been thinking of Beruriah when she wrote that “it’s easy to be a woman when one is insensitive” (to the universe).
It was not my intention to reintroduce Beruriah yet again. However, as so often happens, the text demands one do so despite one’s own volition.
Further down, some “snapshots” are given, which should enable us to grasp the colors of these lives, that we might value their shadows.
We still haven’t said it yet: Beruriah lived in the second century (150 CE). She was a daughter and a wife, a mother also. Rabbi Hananyah ben Teradyon was her father, Rabbi Meir, her husband. Her husband and her father weren’t just anybody. Perhaps respectively they symbolize conditions upon her entry into and (noisy) departure from the sphere of Talmudic debate.
True to her destiny, in each scene (will the murky final scene prove an exception?) she demonstrated her exhaustive integrity and manifested herself as a fervent defender of the oft obscure Divine Reason, while her erudition on the Torah was consensually acknowledged, as she received and imparted learning within the circles of Rabbinical society.
Frame 1: The Systematic ScholarRabbi Simlai came before Rabbi Yohanan and said to him, "Let the master teach me the Book of Genealogies (Sefer Yuhasin)." [. . .] He said to him, "Let the master teach me [the material] in three months." He [Yohanan] picked up a clod, threw it at him, and said to him, “If Beruriah, the wife (devethu) of Rabbi Meir, the daughter of Rabbi Hananyah ben Teradyon, learned 300 traditions in a day from 300 masters, and even so did not fulfill her obligations in three years--how can you say in three months?
Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 62b
Frame 2: A Teacher, but, moreover, a pedagogue....Beruriah found a certain disciple who was reciting his lesson in a whisper. She [kicked] derided him and said to him, "Is it not written [2 Samuel 23:5], 'Ordered in all and secure?' [That is,] if it is ordered by means of [all] your 248 limbs, it will be preserved. But if not, it will not be preserved.
Babylonian Talmud ‘Eruvin 53b-54a
Frame 3: Caustic irony....Rabbi Yosi the Galilean was going along the road. He met Beruriah. He said to her, "By which road shall we go to Lod?" She said to him, "Galilean fool! Did not the sages say, 'Do not talk too much with a woman' [Mishnah Avot 1:5, b. Nedarim 20a]? You should have said, 'By which to Lod?'"
Babylonian Talmud ‘Eruvin 53b
Frame 4: Devout, and an arbiter for peace among her peers....Certain brigands who were in the neighborhood of Rabbi Meir used to trouble him greatly. He prayed [lit.: sought mercy] that they die. Beruriah his wife (devethu) said to him, “What is your opinion [i.e., on what do you base your prayer?] Because it is written [Psalms 104:35], ‘Let sins cease...?’ Is 'sinners' written? [Rather] 'sins' is written. Furthermore, cast your eyes to the end of the verse, 'And they are wicked no more.' Since sins will cease, they will be wicked no more. So pray that they repent and be wicked no more. He prayed for them, and they repented.”
Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachoth 10a
Frame 5: Sensitive, compassionate, tactful in the face of pain, and mindful of the holiness of Shabat....It once happened that Rabbi Meir was sitting and lecturing in the house of study on Sabbath afternoon, and his two sons died. What did their mother [Beruriah] do? She laid the two of them on the bed and spread a sheet over them. After the departure of the Sabbath, Rabbi Meir came home from the house of study. He said to her, “Where are my two sons?" She said, "They went to the house of study.'' He said, "I was watching the house of study, and I did not see them." She gave him a cup for
havdalah, and he recited the havdalah prayer. He again said, ''Where are my two sons?" She said to him, "They went to another place and will soon come." She set food before him, and he ate and blessed. After he blessed, she said, "Master, I have a question to ask you." He said to her, "Ask your question." She said to him, "Master, some time ago a man came and gave me something to keep for him. Now he comes and seeks to take it. Shall we return it to him or not?" He said to her, "Daughter, whoever has an object in trust must return it to its owner." She said to him, "Master, I would not have given it to him without your knowledge." What did she do? She took him by the hand and led him up to the room. She led him to the bed and removed the sheet that was on them. When he saw the two of them lying dead on the bed, he began to cry and say, "My sons, my sons..." At that time she said to Rabbi Meir, "Master, did you not say to me that I must return the trust to its master?” He said, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21).
Midrash Mishle (Proverbs), 31:10
Take 6: Bearer of a faith unshakable....They said to his daughter [Beruriah], “Your father has been sentenced to be burned, your mother to be killed, and you [have been sentenced] to do work” She recited this verse (Jeremiah, 32:19): “Great in counsel, and mighty in work; for your eyes are open upon all the ways of the sons of men; to give to every one according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.” Rabbi [Yehudah the Patriarch] said, "How great are these three righteous people! In the hour of their distress they summoned three verses vindicating [God’s] judgment—which is unprecedented in all of Scripture. The three of them directed their hearts and vindicated the judgment for themselves."
Midrash Sifre to Deuteronomy, S307There are those that say “they are both at the same time just and guilty”
We return, then, to the interpretation of Rashi in Avodah Zarah, 18b (which, in reality, we never left) of the cryptic passage cited in the Talmud “There are those who say it was on account of this act he ran away, and there are those who say it is on account of Beruriah’s action he ran away.” (A brief refresher for the purpose of situating the story: Rabbi Meir, after having liberated, upon Beruriah’s request, the latter’s sister, who had been forced to work in a Roman brothel, has to flee to Babylonia). I was saying that, in reality, we never left the perush
. Perhaps we have only followed along some of those lateral trails that have a habit of revealing the most interesting scenery in terms of diversity.
Some paragraphs and ideas back, I singled out two aspects concerning which I questioned the explications of Rashi. We have retraced the first of these. As for the second, it concerns the content itself of the story.
“Antigone inspired Hegel in his majestic meditation on the tragic: Two antagonists face one another, each inseparably bound to a truth that is partial, relative, but which, considered in and of itself, is wholly justified. Each is prepared to sacrifice his life for it, but cannot lead it to victory without achieving the complete defeat of his adversary. Thus, both are at the same time just and guilty.” (10)
One might even go as far as to say that, where the lives presently enjoying our attention are concerned, they are not so to the same degree.
Rabbi Meir will not have read Kundera when, speaking of the chain of tragedies, he tells us that “an act, though it might be an innocent one, does not expire in solitude. It causes, by way of effect, another act and sets an entire chain of events into motion. Where does the responsibility of man end in relation to his act that thus prolongs itself without end in an incalculable and monstrous transformation?”(11)Crossing over: from Beruriah’s guilt to the responsibility of Rabbi Meir
In the interpretation of Rashi, why is a man like Rabbi Meir, who has at his side a woman who has managed to accompany him, encourage him, alleviate his load of the absolute pains of existence by injecting each scene with a just and peace-seeking thought, why is he capable of (or why does he feel an obligation to) sentencing her, at first through the oracle, and later using the full perversity of manipulation?
Bear with me on this question: From what disgrace would Rabbi Meir be fleeing, if this version were accurate? From his own for having been capable of manipulating his wife, just to make his pronouncements on such a banal comment stand in a good light? Could he have been the kind of man who is prepared to sacrifice whoever interferes with his truths, even though they might be petty truths? Could he be considered an upstanding man, if he occasions and favors bad conduct in someone whose soul was so delicate as to ascribe secondary status to her own pain for the sole purpose of mitigating his? Are not the words of the Psalmist “seek peace, and pursue it” (34:14), instructing us towards an attitude of daily searching, starting with one’s most intimate terrain and then unfolding over one’s familial and social circles? Is shalom bait
not a fundamental mitzvah profoundly connecting wholeness, completeness (shlemut, shalem
) with a peace-seeking outlook (shalom
Going back to the beginning, the ending
I don’t know whether encouraging our scrutiny towards these possible aspects present in the conduct of Rabbi Meir was Rashi’s original intention; or perhaps we still had a few centuries and sufferings to go for attention to shift away from Beruriah’s supposed guilt and onto Rabbi Meir’s responsibility.
In any event it is not clear to me which side of the moon is the dark one, and this perush
’s richness lies, perhaps, in awakening us enough to be capable of assimilating its change of light.
Both her exile in Babylonia to accompany her husband’s destiny (an interpretation maintained by Rabbeiu Nissim),(12) and her possible suicide confront us with an image of Beruriah inconsonant with her life. Capable of bearing the passage of tragedies that afflicted her, her characteristic was of being an actor of a single word. Hence, her heroism is blurred by both endings. As Kierkegaard put it, “What is a hero? He who has the final say. Has a hero ever been seen that did not speak before dying? To renounce having the final say (to reject the scene) reveals an anti-heroic morality.” And if there is one solid element in the life of Beruriah, it is to have been at the precise center of every scene that took place. Hence, her glory, and, hence, perhaps, her light, quite possibly too lustrous for all eyes to be able to appreciate.
(1) Milan Kundera, The Curtain: an Essay in Seven Parts
, HarperCollins, 2007; translator’s note: The translation of the excerpt is my own, not the one published by HarperCollins.
(2) For this find, I am indebted to Gil Student’s November, 2004 article, “Beruriah’s Fate,” in Sefer Ha-Haym
(3) Those interested in a parallel opinion on this point may consult Brenda Socachevsky Bacon’s article “Beruriah’s Final Lessons” in Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues
, #5, 2002, in which the Rabbi Haim Azulai quotation first appeared. Equally interesting is the response to this article by Joel Wolowensky and included in #6, 2003 (pp. 207-208).
(4) Rashi, Sotah 21.
(5) Rambam, Hilchot Talmud Torah
, Chapter 1, Halacha 13:
“A woman who studied Torah receives a [Heavenly] reward but not as much as the reward of a man [who studies], because she is not commanded [to study]. And anybody who does something which they are not commanded, their reward is not the same as the reward of the one who is commanded and fulfills [the Mitzvah], rather it is less. Even though she merits reward, the Rabbis commanded that a man not teach his daughter Torah. Because most women's cognitive skills are not directed towards proper learning and they corrupt the words of Torah into nonsense, according to their weak understanding. The Rabbis said: "Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah, it is as if he taught her tiflut
(silliness, licentiousness). This only refers to Torah sheba'al peh
(the oral tradition); but regarding Torah shebikhtav
(scripture), he should not teach her, but if he does, it is not considered as if he taught her tiflut
(6) Rabbi Yitzchak Arama
“Here we have it that by virtue of her two names—isha
(woman) and chava
—it becomes clear that woman has two purposes. One afforded her by the name isha
, which was taken from man [ish
], and like he, she can understand and know in matters of thinking and mercy, as did the matriarchs and other just women and some of the prophets, just as it is clearly understood in the Eshet Chail
text – a virtuous woman."
(7) See Ashkenazi poskim, Sefer Chassidim
Deuteronomy 1:1 “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan,” interpreted: “He spoke to all, even to the children and women
, that it is written ‘for all of Israel,’ those things accepted by all such as the Haggadah and the Midrash and the Talmud, with neither interpretations nor questions, things we all can understand. But the difficult things, it is said, "Moshe spoke to the sons of Israel" (Deuteronomy 1:3), like the 32 methods by which the Torah is interpreted, that, he only spoke to those of sharp mind."
(8) Abraham Grossman, Chassidut Umordot, Nashim Iehudiot BeEiropa Bimei Habeinaim
, published by Zalman Shazar, Jerusalem, 2001
(9) French author who played an active part in the French Revolution supporting Talleyrand. However, after the fall of the monarchy, she fled France (1792). Her novel Delphine
, in which she championed sentimental free choice above social convention, places her within the budding Romantic Movement.
In 1797 she returns to Paris where she shows a fascination for the figure of Napoleon Bonaparte. However the latter proves mistrustful of a woman dedicated to politics, who participates in palace intrigues, and before whom his scant eloquence would be apparent. Napoleon instigates Madame de Staël to keep away from Paris (1803), and proves inflexible to the requests of all the lady’s friends for him to permit her to return.
(10) Milan Kundera, The Curtain: an Essay in Seven Parts
, HarperCollins, 2007; translator’s note: the translation of the excerpt is my own and not the one published by HarperCollins
(12) The reader interested in this interpretation is recommended the article cited in footnote 2 above.