Beruriah – The Movie and the Legend

While searching through the local library for a video to watch, my eye caught the Israeli flick Beruriah. For the uninitiated, Beruriah is the wife of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Meir (who also shows up in a previous blog posting as the ba’al ha-nes, the miracle worker who allegedly helps us find lost objects, and whose grave on the outskirts of Tiberias boasts an veritable outdoor shopping mall of holy items, including the noted Tehillim/Psalsm vending machine). They lived in the land of Israel.

In Talmudic lore, Beruriah breaks the gender barrier, studying Torah with the big boys and even criticizing an occasional rabbi for his behavior or his understanding of the law. She is portrayed by the Talmud as smart, sassy, sensitive and deeply religious. She survives the tragic death of her two young children, and presses Meir to rescue her sister, who has been forcibly taken to Rome, where she had been forced into a brothel. Meir is successful in his mission. In any event, Rabbi Meir dies in Babylonia, in an exile that, according to Talmud Avodah Zara 18 b, may have been the result of “the matter of Beruriah.” The Talmud does not explain the details.

Hundreds of years later, Rashi, in his commentary on the text, attempts to fill in the blank of this story with a troubling legend:

Once Beruriah criticized the Rabbinic view (Kid. 80b) that women are light-minded, to which R. Meir replied that one day her own experience would testify to the truth of the Rabbi’s words. The day came when she succumbed to the temptation of one of R. Meir’s own disciples. Beruriah committed suicide and R. Meir fled from his home for shame.

The story is troubling in that it puts everyone in a bad light: Rabbi Meir, his student and Beruriah. So what’s going on here with everyone? And what is up with Rashi?
Rabbi Meir – Ambivalent. He never opposes Beruriah’s scholarship and teaching, yet he is insistent that she accept the rabbinic attitude that women are intellectual lightweights. Did Meir put his student up to tempting Beruriah? Unclear, but the Israeli movie suggests that he did. That makes him worse than petty; it makes him a cause of Beruriah’s death.
Meir’s student – Who knows what he is thinking? Does bedding down the teacher’s wife give him superiority? Does he believe that Meir wants him to do this? And what happens to his career afterwards? We don’t know from any text.
Beruriah – Suicide is pretty strong stuff. Does she feel that, as a pioneer woman scholar, she has betrayed not only her own ideals, but the aspirations of future women scholars, who will continue to live under the shadow of the rabbi’s statement that “women are light-minded”? Was she already on emotional thin ice because her father was possibly one of the rabbis killed in the Hadrianic persecutions, she had endured her children’s deaths and now this? Are we even sure about this story of her death and of Meir’s exile? Why does the story only appear in print hundreds of years later?
Rashi – It’s a bit out of context for him to tell an insulting story about Beruriah; in most of his writings he has a pretty positive attitude towards women, at least for his time. And of course there is the legend about his daughters wearing tefillin, something they would have not been likely to do without his support. Was this story just floating around in medieval times? Did it evolve as a means to discredit women’s scholarship and communal leadership?
The movie is a fascinating attempt to bridge the ancient story of Beruriah to a modern namesake. Issues of women’s role in Judaism, male-female relationships, and the seeming need of males to dominate and own, all play a role. It’s a two thumbs-up for me. And it really forced me to hit the books and research a bit more about the remarkable Beruriah of the Talmud.

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