It’s Unlikely That the Rabbis Tried to Undermine the Story of a Talmudic Heroine

October 21, 2022 | Eitam Henkin
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Bruriah, the wife of the 2nd-century sage Rabbi Meir, is one of the Talmud’s most compelling female characters, and perhaps one its most compelling characters altogether. Praised repeatedly for her wisdom, erudition, and piety, she is depicted as contributing to the sages’ legal debates and conveying various teachings to her husband’s disciples. Yet according to the commentary of Rashi (France, 1040-1105), her life ended with adultery, suicide, and the flight of her disgraced husband to Babylonia, casting a pall on her legacy.

In a scholarly investigation of this last biographic item, the late Eitam Henkin—who was murdered by Hamas terrorist along with his wife in 2015—argues that it was added to Rashi’s commentary by an erring scribe, and is without basis:

Rashi’s words received little attention over the course of successive generations, and when they did, they were referenced for their halakhic implications. However, in our time, this has changed, with the Bruriah episode receiving much attention in both the Torah and academic worlds. In light of the shift in the status of women in Jewish society and, more broadly, in the modern world at large, the rare figure of Bruriah—the lone woman to attain a status parallel to the [rabbis of the 1st and 2nd centuries]—has received much attention, and even served as an educational model in the revolution in women’s Torah study of the past several decades.

It is widely claimed that the sages used this story to delegitimize women’s Torah study and Bruriah’s exceptional accomplishments in this area. Were this true, we would have found the Bruriah episode in the Talmud itself or in [the other anthologies of the teachings of the talmudic-era sages], and not in Rashi’s commentary alone. Not merely is this not the case, but precisely the reverse is true: the sages often praise Bruriah and learn from her behavior.

Another claim is that Rashi himself invented the Bruriah Episode, constructing a hybrid of motifs in talmudic literature, in order to establish that Bruriah’s end bears out the ruinous path on which she set out. It goes without saying that anyone versed in Rashi’s methodology and commentaries knows that this cannot be true.

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