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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Bruriah & the Yeshiva World's Struggle With Women's Equality

The high school I attended - Bruriah, in Elizabeth, New Jersey - was a same-sex girls' yeshiva. It was somewhat liberal in yeshiva circles, in that we were encouraged to actually study English subjects. But it was backward in that the only way we could study the Talmud was off a xeroxed sheet of paper, because girls and Torah study were thought not to mix.

The name "Bruriah" comes from the legendary Talmudic figure, widely acknowledged for her brilliance, married to the saintly Rabbi Meir

But their relationship is not so simple to understand.

According to one version of the story, the popular version floated in my time, Bruriah challenged the idea that women are easily seduced ("light-minded"). To prove her wrong, Rabbi Meir had one of his students seduce her. After which she killed herself, and Rabbi Meir ran away from Israel to Babylonia.

As a teen I accepted this without really thinking much about it. As a 44-year-old it doesn't make sense.
  • First and most obviously, the arrogance and pettiness of the characters in the tale don't match the continued legacy on the ground. My school was named after her; there is a well-regarded charity named after him - her was known as a miracle worker, very literally. (My grandfather and my father had a tradition of regular contributions to the worthy charity of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, and so does my family.)
  • Second, there is no husband who wants his wife to sleep with another man. Period.
  • Third, it is a historical fact that Bruriah's father, Rabbi Chananya ben Teradyon, was wrapped in a Torah and burned to death by the Romans for teaching the Torah in public. Bruriah's mother was sold into slavery. So the alternate version of the story makes sense - that Bruriah's sister was remanded to a brothel, from which Rabbi Meir saved her, after which the family fled to Babylonia.
Nevertheless the story about Bruriah's seduction continues. Some argue that it's anti-feminist; but it's well-known that the other rabbis respected her. One famous quote by Rabbi Joshua, who took her side in a debate: "Bruriah has spoken correctly."

The enduring lesson, then, seems to be that "G-d punished her for speaking badly of the sages" - that even if she was technically right, the attitude was all wrong.

Why spend so much time talking about this person? 

Because the debate over Bruriah explains a lot about why Judaism is in such a sad state today. She challenged the men, and legend has it that she was punished; the fact that we cling to that myth suggests a desire among the religious also to punish women who dare to be free and equal.

It's a tendency that's gotten worse in recent years. As sociologist Sam Heilman documented meticulously in The World of the Yeshiva (published in 2000), the American Jewish Orthodox community lurched heavily rightward toward the end of the 20th century, adopting a model of observance that was extreme when compared with the modern Orthodox world that predominated before it.

Chiefly, "yeshivish" was a rejection of the values of Modern Orthodoxy. And I lived through that transition; slowly I watched as fundamentalism took over and the notion of balancing a secular and religious life was viewed as "hypocritical."

Simultaneous with the rise of yeshivism, the Hasidic world exerted its influence and turned more and more extreme. My Zayde and Bubbie were Holocaust survivors, and if you look at the family pictures from the mid-1900s they look very much like any ordinary American in dress. Now, they are blurring the women's faces out of newspaper photos.

Why did Jews turn toward such fundamentalism? 

One word: Feminism.

The civil rights movement represented the breakdown of ideas about segregation being "right." Jews were all over civil rights - we were heavily represented in the marches.

The antiwar movement - no impact whatsoever.

But the notion that women should attain the same level of education as a man; could hold an equally powerful job; in essence didn't need a man telling her what to do in life -- this was an unbearable challenge to the social order.

I remember growing up we went to Zayde and Bubbie's house in Toronto. Zayde showed the utmost respect for my Bubbie. But he also called her "wife," and we took turns helping her serve the food at the Shabbos meals. I can only imagine what would have happened if she'd said, "You know what, husband, f*** it, I don't feel like cooking this week."

A parallel ritual at Grandma and Grandpa's house in Monticello, several times a year; we marveled at Grandma's cast-iron-pot-noodle kugel and hand-ground chopped liver and egg. My grandfather kissed the ground she walked on, and she had her own job as well. But it was unthinkable for Grandma to make a move without Grandpa; if she would have said, "You know what, Murray, I'm becoming a Hasid" I think they would have argued till the ends of the earth, because there were certain things that "the man of the house just decides."

Feminism brought these hidden tensions to the forefront. My aunt Renee got a Ph.D. and served as the token feminist at Grandma and Grandpa's Shabbos table, debating my father vociferously. My uncle Jay, equally a feminist, backed her up.

But when we went home, male domination ruled the day.

No matter what anybody said, I always knew that feminism was morally right; religion can never be about one person dominating another. The only subservience a human has is to G-d.

But the fundamentalists of the world, Jewish and otherwise, base their entire social system on the subjugation of women. The modern Muslim, for example, bears no resemblance to the caricature that is ISIS, but guess what? The entire Islamic State is a system of rape. (Forced "marriage" to 10 year olds????)

Unfortunately, extremism always leads to abuse: The same people who preach intolerance for adultery and homosexuality, whipping the crowds into a frenzy, are the ones who victimize their followers.

A Muslim colleague said to me once, "really religious people never have trouble with one another," and the same is true when it comes to when it comes to reconciling with one's own faith. Too many spiritually oriented Jews have been silenced, marginalized and excommunicated from the community by elders who abused them and threw them away, either to hide the evidence of their crimes or to silence the genuine questions that would undermine the little dictatorships they've set up in the name of serving G-d.

And too many women have been turned off and turned away by a made-up, misogynist, insecure, artificially male-centric system of radicals, who by and large only feel comfortable with women if they exist to serve as two-dimensional cartoon figures.

It is time for Jewish women to lift the curse of Eve.

We can do it respectfully - we should not denigrate our Sages - but it is time to stop conflating "subservience to men" with "subservience to G-d."

In the words of Tova Bernbaum, writing at (the observant) Chabad.com:
"Yes, G-d relegated Eve to a lesser social status and said that she'll endure painful childbirth, but that does not imply a divine commandment to accept less pay for the same work, or refuse epidurals. G-d said that this is a curse -- something negative, reflecting the negative change that occurred in creation with the first sin. In other words, something to change. 
"Fighting inequality, arguing your point, revolting against the old guard -- this is the stuff Judaism is made of. G-d doesn't want a nation who will take its curses lying down. If He did, He wouldn't have chosen the Jews."
So feminism and Judaism absolutely can coexist.

I would argue, in fact, that the religion won't survive without it.

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All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.