Some events do take place but are not true;others are, although they never occurred. -Elie Wiesel2
A true story is one which helps us to go on. -Stanley Hauerwas3
Those who teach us inevitably teach us themselves, since all learning flows through the medium of the relationship. Our teachers bind us to them with their stories. We take into ourselves their Torah sealed inextricably in narrative and with it their blunders, their blindness, their brutalities. God may heal the brokenhearted, but it is our teachers who break those hearts. Our teachers break our hearts when they do not see how their Torah is bounded by their context.
And should that break our hearts? A story has to take place somewhere, and every somewhere has its context, its frame of assumptions about what is real and unshakable and safe. Usually we inhabit this frame without feeling constraint. But sometimes a context becomes a cage. Suffocating, we burst its walls and step out into a new world. It is in the retelling in this new world that some of our teachers' stories break our hearts.
The legend of Beruriah is just such a story. Retelling it from the world in which we stand, we can see how character strains against context, how it shakes assumptions about what it means to be a woman, a Jew, a sexual being. It is precisely this tension of character and context that makes the Beruriah legend anomalous. It is a story about a woman, although at the time of its formation, women seldom were held to have stories. Beruriah was viewed as unlike other women, although women were, as far as the storytellers were concerned, alike in all the ways that mattered. And is it a true story? Say, rather, that the shards of truth are in it, but by the power of the Torah that it contains, I hope to understand it and go on.
I call it a story, though in fact it is many stories from many times and many texts, flotsam and jetsam thrown up by the unsounded seas of rabbinic and post-rabbinic lore. Probably until nineteenth-century Wissenschaft compilations, few people could have told them all.4 But teachers and preachers driving home some lesson must have told one and then another, until in the imaginations of tellers and hearers one story shaped itself, the story of a life. Women told bits and pieces of this story to other women. I know, because that is how I myself first heard a story about Beruriah-from an older Orthodox woman who was unable to read it in a book. And if she could have told it to me in its entirety, it would have gone like this:
Once there was a woman named Beruriah, and she was a great Talmudic scholar. She was the daughter of the great Palestinian rabbi Hananyah ben Teradyon, who was martyred by the Romans. Even as a young girl, she far outstripped her brother as a scholar. It was said she had learned three hundred laws from three hundred teachers in one day. She married Rabbi Meir, the miracle worker and great Mishnaic sage.
One time when Rabbi Meir prayed for some robbers to die, Beruriah taught him to pray that their sin would die, that they would repent. She also taught Meir resignation when their two sons died. Loving and gentle as she was with Meir, Beruriah could also be arrogant and biting. She ridiculed a Sadducee, derided an erring student, and made a fool of Rabbi Yose the Galilean when he met her on the road.
Finally, she mocked the sages' dictum that women are easily seduced, and she came to a shameful end. Rabbi Meir set one of his students to seduce her. After long denial she yielded to him. When the plot was revealed, she strangled herself, and Rabbi Meir fled to Babylonia because of the disgrace.
What is arresting about the portrayal of Beruriah is the vividness and solidity of her selfhood. She is, in literary terms, a rounded character rather than a flat or stylized one. She does not illustrate a single virtue like Rachel, the magnanimous wife of Rabbi Akiva, nor does she appear in a single role like the learned maid-servant of Rabbi Yehudah Ha'Nasi.5 In some texts she is the ideal daughter or wife, in others simply the source of legal opinion, and in still others a caustic and formidable figure. What integrates the Beruriah traditions into a complex and ambivalent tale is the tension between a self portrayed as morally significant, and a sexually polarized society in which moral significance belongs to the opposite sex; the conflict, in other words, is between character and context.
It is unusual for rabbinic legends to depict women in a rounded or complex way. Since they are exclusively male creations or redactions, rabbinic legends are necessarily androcentric. Women appear in cameo roles at best. At worst, they are shadowy utilities like the black-garbed stagehands of the Japanese Noh drama. But Beruriah is no utility. Mastering, defending, even mocking the tradition that shapes her context, she embodies, as do the most memorable of the rabbis, a distinctive moral destiny. The problem of Beruriah- what we will have to understand in order to go on-is what it means that male rabbis transmitted a legend about a woman with a moral life like a man's, and how that legend breaks our hearts.
Paradoxically, it is precisely the anomaly of such a creature as Beruriah that rendered her interesting to the rabbis. In their search for universally applicable principles, the sages continually formulated cases that burst the bounds of their generalizations. So, for example, it is written in Tractate Ketubot: “He who forfeits his life pays no monetary fine.” But what would happen, the rabbis ask, if one managed to do two separate but concurrent acts, one a capital crime, the other a tort? Could one be sentenced both to die and to pay?
The effort to imagine such an occurrence led the rabbis to propose such improbable situations as a man's first devouring forbidden priestly food and then stealing it, or loosing an arrow in the public domain on the Sabbath, which in its trajectory ploughs through someone's silk garments before coming to rest in the private domain.6 What do these surrealistic situations represent if not a passionate attempt to capture some elusive truth by smashing context? Imagining Beruriah must be regarded as just such an effort-a straining for a more encompassing context, an outrageous test case proposed as a challenge to all contextually reasonable assumptions: What if there were a woman who was just like us?
What would it mean? In Palestine in 200 B.C.E. or Babylonia in 500 C.E., a woman who was like a scholar would indeed be anomalous, important, and worthy of attention as ordinary women were not, and yet unwomanly, shameful, and grotesque. It is no surprise, then, that the rabbis who told stories about Beruriah projected into them their own mixed feelings about such a woman. It is more surprising that some of the storytellers were aware that had there been such a woman as Beruriah, she would have had correspondingly mixed feelings about them and their tradition.
Beruriah's story is thus imbued with a profound ambivalence. On the positive side are Beruhiah's brilliance, her special usefulness as a woman who vindicates rabbinic Judaism and the uniquely appealing depictions of her relationship with her husband. On the negative side, Beruriah is viewed as a threat, a competitor, an arrogant woman contemptuous of men and of rabbinic tradition.
This negative pole of the rabbinic attitude toward Beruriah which culminates in the tale of her adultery and suicide is filled with malignant power. It so pervades the legend retroactively that we cannot remember Beruriah's intelligence or accomplishments without recollecting, “But she came to a bad end.” This reservation brings the iron bars of the rabbinic context crashing down upon the anomalous woman; indeed, upon all women.
If we consider for a moment the position of women in the rabbinic system, the context-breaking nature of a creation like Beruriah is immediately apparent. In the world of the rabbis, received tradition teaches that women are the intellectual and moral inferiors of men. in Tractate Ketubot it is said that “women are flighty;” that is, easily seduced7 and, because of their looseness, inherently seductive. “Whoever converses overmuch with women brings harm to himself, neglects the study of Torah, and in the end will inherit perdition” write the rabbis in Mishnah Avot 1:5. Women's hair, women's movements, women's voices, women's garments are all enticements to sexual license according to the Talmud.8 Because contact with menstruants is ritually defiling, contact with even a man's own female relatives is hedged about with prohibitions.9
It is no exaggeration to say that women are viewed as aliens inhabiting a culture that at certain points intersects male culture while remaining distinct from it. This must be the meaning of the adage attributed to Ulla that “women are a separate people.”10 The very lives of women can be viewed as intrinsically less valuable than those of men since Mishhan Horayot 3:7 teaches that when a choice must be made about whose life to save first, a man's life takes priority.
Since women are most praiseworthy when they are least visible, a woman's occupation of the central role in a story must be explained. The most reasonable explanation is that she has displaced a man. Thus, in several texts identified with Beruriah, the woman is portrayed as having bested a less competent male.
In one of the earliest of these texts, Beruriah's competitor is her own brother. The Tosefta poses a legal problem concerning the purification of an oven.11 Hananyah's son says it becomes pure when it is moved from its place. Beruriah, his daughter, says it becomes pure when its parts are disassembled, a more elegant solution since, as soon as its parts are disassembled, the oven reverts to a pile of stones. Since it is no longer a cultural object, it is not susceptible to ritual impurity. The two opinions are told to Rabbi Yehudah who remarks, “His daughter said better than his son.”
A text from Tractate Semahkhot 12:13 depicts further the rogue's progress of Rabbi Hananyah's disappointing son and his replacement by his pious sister. Having fallen into evil ways, the son is murdered by outlaws. Each of his relatives recites over him a condemnatory verse from Proverbs. His sister's verse-“bread of falsehood is pleasant to a man, but in the end his mouth is filled with gravel” (Prov. 20:17)-is rendered more cruelly apt in a later parallel version in Ekhah Rab. 3:8 in which the son, himself an outlaw, has been murdered by his companions for betraying their secrets and his mouth is filled with gravel. The narrative rationale for the high visibility of Rabbi Hananyah's daughter is thus established: she is a replacement for a worthless son.
Beruriah's displacement of men is also achieved by confuting them. Tractate Berakhot 10a depicts a dispute between Beruriah and a Sadducee. The Sadducee challenges the verse “Rejoice, O barren one who has not given birth” (Isa. 54:1) on the grounds that a barren woman has no cause for rejoicing. Since this is a Pharisaic narrative, the plot requires that the Sadducee, seeking a theological alliance by basing his objection on “women's experience,” be stopped in his tracks by a woman learned enough to direct him to read to the end of the verse: “For more numerous are the children of the forsaken than the children of the favoured wife.”
But Beruriah then presses her advantage. “Why 'barren one who has not given birth?'” she questions. “Rejoice, O community of Israel, which is compared to a barren woman, which has not borne children for perditon like you!” Not only does Beruriah resist the Sadducee's temptation to argue that the text does not represent women's experience, she vehemently rejects all kinship with him. Like her Pharisaic creators, the Beruriah of this story views herself as a representative of the normative tradition. It is not she but the Sadducee who is marginal: the implication of her taunt is that he is not a member of the community of Israel at all.
The portrayal of an incisively contemptuous Beruriah enlivens the Pharisaic polemic against Sadduceeism, but when the rabbis come to imagine their own relations with such a woman, the mood becomes more threatening. Rabbi Yohanan holds up the example of Beruriah, who learned three hundred traditions from three hundred masters in a day, to discourage-or, conceivably, to insult-the persistent Rabbi Simlai whom Rabbi Yohanan does not wish to teach.12
In a text from Tractate Eruvin 53b-54a, Beruriah herself rebukes a student for his ineffective study habits. She predicts that because he studies silently and passively, he will be unable to retain what he learns. In an ironic reversal, the woman is a scathing and authoritative scholar, the scholar silent and passive like a woman.
This kind of irony is doubled and tripled in an encounter between Beruriah and Rabbi Yose the Galilean in which all the rabbinic ambivalence about Beruriah is encapsulated:
He asked her, “By what road do we go to Lydda?” She replied, “Silly Galilean! Didn't the sages say, 'Do not converse too much with women?' You could have said, “How to Lydda?”13
This story is laden with ironies. Rabbi Yose, fearing that a superfluous pleasantry will open him to lust, rudely asks directions without a greeting. Beruriah obligingly demonstrates how he might have made the conversation briefer yet, thereby prolonging their contact. Not only must Rabbi Yose converse with a woman, he must be rebuked by one; not only rebuked, but taught Torah; and not just any Torah, but precisely the dictum he had been trying so zealously to observe.
But the ultimate joke-if it is a joke-is on Beruriah. The Torah she has taught Rabbi Yose is genuine, and it clearly discriminates against her. The originators of this text have come to the crux of the problem: Were there a woman like Beruriah, schooled in and committed to a tradition which views her as inferior, how could she resolve the paradox inherent in her loyalty to that tradition?
The irony through which the potential explosiveness of this paradox is conveyed is itself multi-levelled. Irony is, first of all, a language that the self speaks to the self over the heads of the unwitting. That is how it functions within the text. Beruriah speaks ironically to the obtuse Rabbi Yose. In response to his zeal, she exposes the sexist dictum herself, and teasingly reproaches its adherent for not observing it.
But irony is also a code by which the knowing can speak to, and make alliance with, the knowing. The Beruriah of this text sends a message of defiance to like-minded readers. For what can her behaviour mean other than that she rejects the rabbinic dictum that she purports to teach?
There is, however, a third level to this irony-a third secret message that is conveyed. This is the message that the rabbinic transmitters of the story convey to their audience, the message that Beruriah is subversive and unmanageable, a fifth column in the patriarchal domain in which she has hitherto enjoyed the privileges of a resident alien.
The story, with its ironies within ironies, epitomises the negative pole of the rabbinic ambivalence toward Beruriah and adumbrates the story of her downfall. Other texts, however, illustrate the positive pole. For while it is threatening to imagine being ridiculed and exposed by a woman too learned and powerful to be controlled, it is also moving to imagine being loved and befriended by her. Thus the rabbis, in describing the domestic life of Beruriah and Meir, portray Beruriah as a feminine version of the ideal study partner.14
In one episode, Rabbi Meir prays for the demise of robbers who are plaguing the neighbourhood. Beruriah addresses him in the language of Talmudic dispute:
"On what do you base your opinion that it is permissible to pray for the robbers' deaths? Because it is written, 'let sins end' (Ps. 104:35)? Not 'sinners' but 'sins' is written! Moreover, read to the end of the verse: 'and the wicked shall be no more.' Pray rather that they should repent and not be wicked any more."15
Meir prays as Beruriah instructs and the robbers repent.
It is interesting to compare this story with the mediaeval representation of the virtuous wife of Meir as depicted in Midrash Misheli on Prov. 31:10. Although Beruriah's name is not mentioned, the story has become one of the homiletic classics of the Beruriah legend. In this story, Meir's two sons have died on the Sabbath. Their mother evades Meir's questions about their whereabouts until the day has ended. She then proposes a legal case to him, addressing him as a student would a teacher. “Master, a while ago a man gave me an object in trust. Now he wishes to take it. Should we return it to him or not?” Meir quotes the law: the object must be returned.
The wife thereupon shows Meir the dead children. When he begins to bewail their loss, she reminds him, “Master, did you not say to me that I must return the trust to its owner?” He responds, quoting Job, “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
One virtue attributed to the wife of the second story is restraint. Because God is owed a Sabbath unmarred by mourning, she restrains her own grief as a mother and out of her concern for her husband. Her second, less apparent virtue is a distinctive hesed, a sort of loving-kindness that only one scholar can offer another. This scholar-wife breaks the terrible news to her husband by asking a question framed to address the subtext of his grief. The metaphor of the owner reclaiming property left in trust prevents Meir from interpreting the deaths as punishment for parental sins. Consequently it allows the bereaved parents to grieve without self-reproach. The wife in this text agrees with the opinion cited in Tractate Berkhot 5b that the death of children is a trial of love and not a punishment. Meir signifies his acceptance of this reframing by quoting Job, the innocent man tested by God.
But how can Beruriah be a man's intellectual and spiritual intimate when women, simply by reason of their womanhood, continually emanate sexual invitation? Rabbi Yose the Galilean was not alone in believing that women were ineluctably sexual beings. The polarisation of sexual and nonsexual intimacies is characteristic of rabbinic Judaism. Mishnah Avot says:
All love which is dependent on sexual desire, when the desire is gone, the love is gone. Love which is not dependent on sexual desire never ends. What is love dependent on sexual desire? The love of Amnon and Tamar. And love which is not dependent on sexual desire? The love of David and Jonathan.16
If Amnon and Tamar and David and Jonathan represent the two ends of a continuum, the fact that one end is represented by an incestuous rape and the other by a relationship presumed to be nonsexual does suggest a dichotomy between sexual desire and true love.17 The love of David and Jonathan, moreover, evoked for the rabbis their own study partnerships-passionate relationships, yet devoid of conscious sexuality.
The study partnership was one of the defining social structures of rabbinic society and one of the most idealised. As it is written in Avot d'Rabbi Natan:
Yehoshua ben Perahyah says: “Appoint for yourself a teacher, and get yourself a companion.” This teaches that a man should get himself a companion, to eat with him, drink with him, study Bible with him, study Mishnah with him, sleep with him and reveal to him all his secrets, secrets of Torah and secrets of worldly things.18
From the rabbinic perspective, the study partners' lack of sexual motive is what safeguards these intimacies. What is eroticised instead is the study. Hence, it is not surprising that the Talmud describes ordination celebrations that mimic weddings.19 At Rabbi Zera's ordination, for example the sages sing him the traditional praise-song for a bride: “No kohl, no rouge, no waved hair and still a graceful gazelle.” Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi, who are mentioned together at least eight times in the Talmud, are given a joint celebration even more reminiscent of a wedding.
It is not even problematic for the rabbis to appreciate one another's physical attractiveness. Yohanan ben Napha's beauty is celebrated in several stories. In one, the sight of Rabbi Yohanan's bared arm lights up the sickroom of Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat who weeps unashamedly over the mortality of his friend's beauty.20
Another text narrates the lovers' tragedy of Rabbi Yohanan and his partner Resh Lakish.21 Resh Lakish, a bandit chief, happens upon Yohanan swimming in the Jordan and is struck by his beauty. Yohanan is equally struck by the bandit's strength. He teaches Resh Lakish Torah and gives him his sister as a wife.
One day the two study partners have an academic dispute which becomes a bitter quarrel. Resh Lakish then falls ill and dies unreconciled with Rabbi Yohanan. After Resh Lakish's death, Yohanan mourns him wildly and dies of grief.
Attachments between teachers and students may be equally passionate. Several stories recount Rabbi Meir's continued loyalty to his teacher Elisha ben Abuyah, who turned heretic. In one, Meir declares, “If God will not save him, I will.” He spreads his garment over his teacher's grave which is aflame with infernal fire until, by morning, the flames have ceased.22
It is precisely Beruriah's inability to provide herself with a teacher and get herself a companion that leaves her isolated in the rabbinic world.23 The crucial difference between Beruriah and the rabbis is that no teacher claims her as student, that no student quotes her as teacher, and that Beruriah herself quotes texts but never names teachers. Whatever her gifts and capacities, they funnel, ultimately, into a void because Beruriah lacks authority.
Authority in rabbinic Judaism flowed through the medium of rabbinic relationships, and the rabbis could not imagine how to give Beruriah authority without including her in the web of rabbinic relationships-the web of teachers and students and study partners. And they could not imagine doing that without also imagining her sexuality as a source of havoc. Sexuality was regarded as women's most compelling characteristic, and it constituted, in the rabbis' opinion, an insurmountable barrier to any relationship other than a sexual one. Women could create great disorder with their rampant sexuality. Not only did this sexuality function as a metaphor for the disequilibrating potential of female power, but it represented to the rabbis all that is untamable, unpredictable, and lawless in human beings.24
Two closely related stories about Beruriah address the problem of sexuality-one, a Talmudic narrative;25 the other, an addendum by the eleventh-century commentator Rashi, recounting the scandal of Beruriah's death. An analysis of these two stories will show both how the rabbis tried to break context and how they failed.
The Talmudic narrative begins by recounting the martyrdom of Hananyah ben Teradyon at the hands of the Romans. Hananyah himself is burned, his wife is exiled, and his daughter is sentenced to serve as a prostitute. But when the Talmudic evolution of the legend fused Hananyah's daughter with Beruriah, identified as the wife of Meir, the story of her consignment to a brothel required major adjustments.
The motif of the virgin in the brothel (generally treated with lip-smacking salaciousness lightly overlaid with pathos) was a popular theme in Latin literature and was easily accessible to Jewish writers.26 It did, however, both from the Roman and the Jewish point of view, require a virgin. Were Rabbi Meir's wife to sojourn in a brothel, however briefly, the legal questions about the status of her marriage would be no laughing matter. Hence, Tractate Avoda Zara 17a endows Beruriah with a sister who is sentenced to the brothel and rescued by Rabbi Meir in the course of a picaresque narration that explores the connections between sexuality and power.
The narrative is set in motion by Beruriah. “I am ashamed that my sister sits in a brothel,” she tells her husband. So Meir goes to Rome and, disguised as a Roman legionnaire, tests the chastity of his imprisoned sister-in-law. Because she passes the test, he redeems her from the apprehensive procurer, teaching him the magic plea “O God of Meir, answer me!” which ultimately saves the procurer from execution.
Meir evades his pursuers more farcically. In one version, he darts into a pagan temple where he pretends to eat from the idolatrous feast: “He dipped in one finger and sucked another.” In a second version, Meir enters a brothel where Elijah the Prophet, conveniently disguised as a whore, appears to him and embraces him in order to throw the pursuers off the track. They see Rabbi Meir but are convinced that it is not he. “Heaven forbid that Rabbi Meir would act like this!” they exclaim.
After her removal from the brothel, Beruriah's sister disappears from the narrative. She is never mentioned again in this or in any other text. The story ends with Meir's flight to Babylonia because of an unspecified incident about Beruriah.
What have we here? The fugue-like structure with its dissolves and transformations reminds us of a dream, but if it is a dream, it is a political one-a dream about power and the presentation of the self. Both the woman in the brothel and her rescuer are endangered because they are Jews allied with or related to other Jews in resistance to the empire that governs them. Both are faced with situations where, to preserve their lives, they must pretend to be what they are not; while to preserve their integrity, they must not be what they pretend. The captive in the brothel must seem to be a whore, but she must also defend her chastity against her clients. The fugitive must evade his pursuers' attempts to unmask him as an outlawed Jew, but he must behave like a saintly rabbi.
The pretence inherent in the experience of oppression is dramatically expressed in the setting of the brothel. Only the metaphor of the sexual embrace between whore and client can convey so powerfully the sense of intrusion and humiliation, of involuntary collusion with the oppressor, of merger. To be in the oppressor's power but not yet to have yielded to his will is to be a virgin in a brothel.
At the outset of the story, Rabbi Meir has gone to rescue a virgin from a brothel. Disguised as his own oppressor, a Roman legionnaire, he tries to conquer a trapped woman. Under the disguise is Jewish power. Meir the wonder-rabbi can provide a terrified procurer with an incantation that will shield him from all attack.
But as the story progresses, power is stripped away. Meir the sham Roman must flee the real Romans. Transformed from oppressor to oppressed, and unable to save himself with miracles, he must appear to compromise himself, but resist internally. Meir, too, becomes a virgin in a brothel.
The rules in Rabbi Meir's brothel, however, are less stringent than those in his sister-in-law's. Unlike the woman whose chastity he tested so rigorously, Rabbi Meir can actually participate in the forbidden act and emerge innocent: in his brothel, the sexual aggressor is, providentially, Elijah. Moreover, Meir is allowed to contrive his own escape. The loopholes reflect a context in which male sexual temptation are more sympathetically viewed and in which men have greater freedom of action and mobility.
What can such a story reflect if not an attempt by the sages to draw an analogy between their own experience of marginality and stigma in an often hostile empire, and women's vulnerability and powerlessness under patriarchal institutions?
The episode breaks off with both Rabbi Meir and his sister-in-law in limbo. Escape brings neither security nor relief. Meir is forced into a new flight, a new exile. The fragmentary structure of the episode mirrors the failure of the story's transmitters to reach some resolution, to bring it home. And, they hint, something to do with Beruriah has made “home” proscribed.
The eleventh-century commentator Rashi offers the following explanation for Rabbi Meir's exile to Babylonia:
Once Beruriah mocked the rabbinic dictum “Women are flighty” [i.e. easily seduceable]. Meir said, “By your life! You will end by affirming their words.” He commanded one of his students to tempt her to immorality. The student urged her for many days before she agreed. When it [the plot] became known to her, she strangled herself. Rabbi Meir fled because of the disgrace.
It is no coincidence that Rashi juxtaposes his story to the story of Meir's adventure in Rome. The two stories share several motifs. In both, Meir conducts a chastity test. In both, female sexuality brings shame and causes Meir to leave home. In both, women are assumed to be solely responsible for sexual behaviour, even when pressured, deceived or entrapped by men. Chastity is the measure of women's worth, and there are no extenuating circumstances.
But are there extenuating circumstances for rabbis? Is Beruriah judged by a different standard? While there exists both in Talmud and Midrash an extensive literature of temptation stories about scholars, the ideal comparison to Beruriah's temptation would be the temptation of her own husband. In Tractate Kiddushin 81a the following story is told:
Rabbi Meir used to mock sexual sinners. One day, as Meir was walking by the river, Satan, in the guise of a seductive woman, appeared to him on the opposite bank. Finding no ferry, the inflamed Meir grabbed the rope and began pulling himself across. When Meir was halfway across the river, Satan stopped tempting him and said, “Had they not proclaimed in Heaven 'Take heed of Rabbi Meir and his learning,' your chastity would not be worth two pennies.”
Similar stories are recounted of Rabbi Akivan and of Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba. Having a place in the rabbinic authority structure, then, entitles one to the help of Heaven when one's own defences against temptation have proven inadequate. Hence, the rabbis are rescued. By contrast, no heavenly voice protects Beruriah by proclaiming, “Take heed of Beruriah and her learning.” Like the virgin in the brothel, she is judged by more stringent standards, but unlike the virgin, Beruriah will fail the chastity test.
The analogy has even richer implications. Like the virgin in the brothel, Beruriah is an anomaly, a person wildly out of place in her context, a paradox that may at any moment be violently resolved. A virgin in a brothel cannot expect to withstand any concentrated attempt to violate her. Her exemption from molestation lasts exactly as long as men's respect for her integrity outweighs their resentment of her autonomy and separateness. Beruriah among the scholars is an anomaly only as long as the scholars permit her to be. It is easier in an androcentric universe if there are no anomalies, if women are all alike-and men can easily make them alike by treating them in the same way.
What is attacked in Rashi's story, therefore, is Beruriah's specialness. As in the brothel story, male superiority and patriarchal power are reinforced by reducing women to their sexual function. It is precisely a sexual humiliation that cuts Beruriah down to size.
Rashi's story is also thematically contiguous with the earlier portions of the Beruriah legend. Like many other Beruriah stories, it focuses on the irresolvable dissonance between the character and her context. Had not the author pushed on to prove Beruriah wrong and to punish her for challenging the rabbinic dictum, this could have been a sister story to Beruriah's ironic encounter with Rabbi Yose the Galilean.
Twentieth-century readers have been extremely uncomfortable with this final Beruriah story.27 They have baselessly attacked its unity with the rest of the legend and have objected that, in literary terms, the behaviour of Meir and Beruriah is out of character.28 In a legend, however, new units are admissible if they succeed in adhering to the legend. If people believe them, to put it simplistically, their integration with the rest of the legend is accomplished.
We might question how it is that sophisticated readers have expended a great deal of energy attempting to discredit this story without succeeding in budging it from its place in the legend. If Beruriah and Meir's behaviour were truly inconceivable, the story would not work for us; it would simply be one of the many bizarre or incoherent rabbinic legends that do not speak to us in our context. The ugliness of this story haunts us precisely because it is credible, because we can imagine not only Beruriah's rage and rebellion against the tradition, but also the great scholar and miracle-worker, the charismatic Rabbi Meir, playing the pimp for his own wife in order to vindicate the Torah.
This is the story through which our teachers truly break our hearts. For at what price is the Torah vindicated? Once our teachers had brought into being the Beruriah of the legend, this outrageous hypothesis, the woman with a moral life like a man's, they could not imagine her initiating an affair or falling into casual promiscuity. The only way they could envision Beruriah's adultery was by imagining the guardians of the Torah entrapping her into violating the Torah with them.
The discrediting of Beruriah, then, is accomplished only by means of a betrayal that profanes every relationship that rabbinic Judaism holds to be holy: the bond of marriage, the bond between teacher and student, the very covenant with God that the commandments of the Torah express. The cost of discrediting Beruriah is cosmic.
Ironically, this disreputable tale, often dismissed as a fabrication, testifies to the ultimate truthfulness of the legend. The answer to the question the rabbis posed- What if there were a woman who was just like us?-is that the institutionalised denigration, subordination, and exclusion of women would destroy her, and that in the process the keepers of the tradition would besmirch themselves and profane the Torah they sought to protect.
I would like to believe, because of the violence done to the Torah in that final story, that the tellers broke their own hearts as well as their students', but I doubt it. The curse of scholars is the delusion of transcending context, all the while being trapped in a frame to which they are oblivious.
The story of Beruriah is not without comforts, although they are sober comforts. To imagine and transmit a legend about a female scholar through a thousand years of patriarchal culture is nothing if not a transcendence of context. But such insights are precious and fragile. They can survive only if we build a new world to sustain them. The task that we inherit from our teachers is to make a world in which a Beruriah could thrive.
And our heartbreak? It is part of our inheritance, a bitter hopefulness in the face of our estrangement from one another and from our world, matrix of the shattered spheres. Heartbreak is what moves us to the work of redemption, which is called tikkun, mending. And it is on this account that the Hassidic masters taught, “The wholest heart is a broken heart.”