Women rarely make appearances in the male-dominated world of the Talmud. But the few places where they do speak certainly make an impression, none greater than that made by the brilliant and ever-witty Beruria.
Beruria—her very name means clarity—is said to be the wife of the great Tanna Rabbi Meir and the daughter of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon, martyred in the Bar Kokhba revolt. She is cited as an exemplar of academic brilliance in her mastery of complex subjects and the ability to learn 300 traditions from 300 rabbis in a single day.
While a learned woman named Beruria likely did exist in second-century Eretz Yisrael, most of the narratives about her appear only later in the Babylonian Talmud and midrash, which lends doubt to their biographical value. Nevertheless, the literary persona of Beruria captured by these vignettes certainly reveals a great deal about the Talmudic storytellers and their anxieties about their own cultural and gender boundaries.
Many today look to Beruria as a proto-feminist who proved herself equal to her rabbinic colleagues in knowledge of Torah tradition and biblical interpretation. However, the debate continues among scholars as to whether the ancient rabbis themselves viewed her as an exceptional ideal or as a threat to their hegemony.
It was likely a paradoxical combination of both. That she could never simply be one of the boys is evident from the meager legal quotations in her name. However, I would argue that precisely her status as a respected outsider gave her the ability to transcend the limits of the male rabbinic world, be a voice of critique to the rabbis, and access further knowledge from beyond the constraints of the traditional curriculum.
One story that demonstrates her acerbic wit attacks a distinguished sage:
Rabbi Yosi the Galilean was going along the road. He met Beruria. 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’ [Pirke Avot 1:5]? You should have said, ‘By which to Lod?’”
Beruria attacks Rabbi Yosi not only for being too verbose (using four Hebrew words instead of two) but also insinuating that he is being flirtatious (saying we, which may hint at an invitation for her to join). The sages themselves prohibit conversation with women, lest it lead to mixed dancing or the like, and they thereby exclude intelligent women from learned circles. Her biting attack zeros in on the hypocrisy of a sage not heeding his own advice. This sage, at least, would be lost without some direction from Beruria.
In other stories, Beruria castigates a student for not studying out loud, and she lashes out against a Christian heretic as she expertly undermines his biblical interpretation. Similarly demonstrating her exegetical skill, Bavli Berakhot 10a reports an instructive vignette on how she sets straight her own husband:
There were these bullies in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood who caused him a great deal of anguish. Rabbi Meir prayed that they should die.
Rabbi Meir’s wife, Beruria, said to him: What is your thinking? Do you base yourself on the verse: Let sinners cease from the land (Psalms 104:35)? But is it written: Let sinners (hot’im) cease? Rather, it is written: Let sins (hata’im) cease.” … Instead, pray that they should repent.
He prayed for them and they repented.
The story does not detail the level of violence of these neighborhood hooligans, but Rabbi Meir’s death curse seems like a rash overreaction. His good-sensed wife not only calms him down with a more peaceful and productive solution; she also infers a prooftext for his side, rejects it, and offers a better interpretation.
In another moving narrative from the Midrash on Proverbs, Rabbi Meir is comforted by his wife (not named explicitly in this text but presumably the same literary persona) after they lose two sons:
There was a story about Rabbi Meir who was sitting and expounding in the study hall on Shabbat afternoon, when two of his sons died. What did their mother do? She placed both of them on the bed and spread a sheet over them. At the end of Shabbat, Rabbi Meir came home from the study hall. He said to her, “Where are my two sons?” She said, “They went to the study hall.” He said to her, “I scanned the study hall and I did not see them.”
They gave him the cup for havdalah and he recited the prayers. He repeated and said, “Where are my two sons?” She said, “They went elsewhere and they are coming now.” She placed food in front of him and he ate and blessed.
After he blessed, she said to him, “Master, I have a question to ask you.” He said to her, “Say your question.” She said to him, “Master, before today, a man came and deposited something with me, and now he is coming to take it. Should we return it to him or not?” He said, “My daughter, one who has a deposit with him must return it to its owner.” She said to him, ‘Were it not for your consent, I would not have given it to him.”
What did she do? She grabbed his hand, brought him up to that room, had him approach the bed and took off the sheet from upon them. When he saw both of them dead and laying upon the bed, he began to cry and say, ‘My sons, my sons, my teachers, my teachers—my sons in the way of the world, my teachers in that they would enlighten my eyes with their Torah.”
At that time, she said to Rabbi Meir, “Rabbi, is this not what I told you—do I not need to return the deposit to its Owner?” He said, “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken; may the name of the Lord be blessed” (Job 1:21). Rabbi Hanina said, “With this, she consoled him and his mind became composed.”
Beruria’s repression of her husband’s grief, never mind her own, may strike us moderns as psychologically unhealthy and insensitive to the tragic loss. If the word Stoic comes to mind, you’d be correct. The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who lived just a generation before Beruria, wrote:
Never say of anything, “I have lost it”; but, “I have returned it.” Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned. Is your estate taken away? Well, and is not that likewise returned?
Another famous Stoic, Seneca, similarly wrote: “If you admit to having derived great pleasures, your duty is not to complain about what has been taken away but to be thankful for what you have been given.” Interestingly, Seneca wrote this in a letter to Marcia, a prominent woman who lost her son, and he opens his letter with expected Hellenistic misogyny: “you have as little of a woman’s weakness of mind as of her other vices.” This backhanded compliment highlights the role reversal in the rabbinic story that has the female philosopher comforting the father.
Pliny the Younger also records a parallel to this story about a woman named Arria who hid her son’s death from her husband and had to keep lying each time he asked about them. We have no way to determine whether the author of this midrash drew directly from Stoic sources or just incorporated material from popular culture. Stoicism, remember, was the most popular common-sense philosophy of the day. But the more important question is why is this philosophic approached voiced in the mouth of Beruria? In fact, Beruria’s exhortation in the first story about praying for enemies to repent is also textbook Stoic advice. Here are Epictetus and Seneca, respectively:
“They are thieves and robbers,” you may say. What do you mean by thieves and robbers? “They are mistaken about good and evil.” Ought we then to be angry with them, or to pity them? But show them their error, and you will see how they desist from their errors.
It is the duty of the chief administrator of the laws, or the ruler of a state, to correct ill-disposed men, as long as he is able, with words, and even with gentle ones, that he may persuade them to do what they ought, inspire them with a love of honor and justice, and cause them to hate vice and set store upon virtue.
The Stoics believe that people commit wrongdoing because of ignorance or lack of wisdom. Therefore, punishing a wrongdoer would hardly be appropriate or helpful. Instead, education and repentance would be the best and only way to prevent future wrongdoing. If Seneca were around today, he would be advocating for prison reform and peace treaties with enemy nations. By way of contrast, Rabbi Meir’s approach to destroy evil follows in line with the previous statement on Berakhot 9b that King David “did not say Halleluiah until he saw the downfall of the wicked.”
What, then, is the role of Beruria in the Talmud and in the minds of its storytellers and editors? Perhaps she succeeds as a conduit to introduce external philosophical ideas into the rabbinic curriculum because she stands at the border between both realms. She is marked as outsider by her gender even though she is an insider in every other way – and is thus able to gain respect from the rabbis for her critical and unique perspective. Beruria communicates Stoic ideas to the rabbinic community not by simply repeating them, but by deriving them from Scripture though her innovative interpretation and by finding analogies to them in halakhic categories.
Beruria occupies the role of “the Stranger,” as understood by the influential German sociologist Georg Simmel in a 1908 essay by that title. Simmel argues that the foreigner who enters a group and stays becomes a member of group while also remaining at its margins. “The stranger,” he writes, “makes his appearance everywhere as a trader” importing foreign goods into the group. Furthermore, the stranger is often in the position to best understand, evaluate and judge the indigenous group: “Because he is not bound by roots to the particular constituents and partisan dispositions of the group, he confronts all of these with a distinctly ‘objective’ attitude, an attitude that does not signify mere detachment and nonparticipation, but is a distinct structure composed of remoteness and nearness, indifference and involvement.” Simmel, himself the son of Jewish parents who converted to Christianity, personally experienced being a stranger himself and explicitly refers to the Jewish experience in his essay. In many ways, the role of the Jew as trader and social critic in diaspora parallels the role of Beruria as philosophical conduit and moral critic among the rabbis.
Beruria had the twin credentials of knowledge and lineage to join the rabbinic study circle. Forced to remain at its margins as a woman, however, she presents the voice of rabbinic self-criticism, pointing out hypocrisy and correcting bad habits. She further applies her talent to mine the Bible for its latent voices that resonated with the leading philosophical viewpoints of her day, thereby inspiring us as modern readers to do the same with the Talmud. Amazingly, Beruria’s deconstructive voice is preserved within the Talmud itself, thus revealing the truly multilayered dialogic nature of the Talmud, ever turning in upon itself and challenging us to forever question our own assumptions and worldviews.