Two Books Explore New Perspectives on the Talmud, With a Focus on Women
Ruth Calderon reimagines ancient tales, while Tova Hartman and Charlie Buckholtz examine characters in the margins
Calderon reads the text about Beruriah’s suicide, a tradition preserved not in the Talmud itself but in Rashi’s commentary. She imagines what the student sent by her husband to entrap her into infidelity must have done and thought, and adds the jarring detail that when she hanged herself it was by her husband Rabbi Meir’s black tefillin. In her commentary, Calderon writes: “Beruriah’s death is not a punishment; it is the tragic fate of one who never found a place for herself. In contrast, Rabbi Meir’s self-imposed exile is a punishment for the sin of being unable to see his wife as both a Torah scholar and a woman. Instead of learning from her, he left her emotionally starved and lured her directly into sin.”
Another text both books discuss is the story of Rav Rehumai and his wife in Ketubot 62b. In her first speech at the Knesset, viewed round the globe on YouTube, Calderon made the point, as do Hartman and Buckholtz, that a critique of the rabbinic system is implicit in this story of a rabbi whose name means “compassion” or “womb” or “love,” and who leaves his home and wife to study far away. Rav Rehumai’s wife awaited his once-a-year visits, until one year, sitting on the roof of the study house, absorbed in his studies, he failed to return home. His wife “let a tear fall from her eye,” the story in Ketubot says, as translated by Ilana Kurshan in Calderon’s book, and “at that moment Rav Rehumai was sitting on the roof. The roof collapsed underneath him and he fell to his death.”
A system that does not allow for critique will die, the story and its expositors say. Calderon sees the rabbi as “a man who simply did not know what love is.” Hartman and Buckholtz see the story as an alternative reading of the much-praised sacrifice of Rachel, the wife of Rabbi Akiba who did not see him for the 24 years he was away studying; they suggest that this story and others valuing relationships are “awaiting an appropriative renaissance of their own.”
Both these books are written to give points of entry to feminist perspectives that hadn’t been brought to these texts before contemporary times. Both are written to give a highly personal reading, in the case of Calderon from the point of view of imaginative possibilities, and from Hartman and Buckholtz to validate a model of authenticity based on the significance of personal relationships and the importance of resisting the inducements of power that may betray these intimate ties—as they demonstrate in particular in the chapter on the biblical Isaac and the Greek Iphigenia. Certainly both these new books, with their imaginative and critical approaches to a traditional and much-read text, are a welcome step in encouraging Jews of all stripes to engage with texts that hold values we wish to live by, and to find those values there.
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