Who is one of your favorite figures from Jewish texts?
Answer: Bruriah – Talmudic Scholar, Feminist Hero, Advocate for Human Potential
Bruriah was one of the great Talmudic scholars. Her husband was the great sage Rebbi Meir and her father was Rabbi Hananiah Ben Teradion (one of the “Ten Martyrs” in the Yom Kippur liturgy killed by the Romans for teaching Torah). Bruriah was known for her humor and caustic remarks, but even more so for her scholarship. It is said that she studied 300 Torah laws from 300 rabbis in one day (Pesachim 62b). She is a feminist hero who set a new bar for women’s education and scholarship at a time when it was not accepted.
Remarkably, she not only believed in her own individual potential for growth and change, but in every individual’s potential for growth and change. This can be seen from an important Talmudic passage (Brachot 10a). There were some boors in Rebbi Meir’s neighborhood, who caused him great distress. Rebbi Meir would pray that they would die. His wife Bruriah said to him, “What are you thinking?” [He responded] Because it says, “Sin will cease.” [She responded] Does it say “Sinners?” “Sins” is what it says [End the evil, not evil doers]. “Furthermore, go down to the end of the verse, ‘The wicked will be no more.’ Since their sinning will stop, will there ‘no longer be sinners?’ Rather, you should pray that they repent, then ‘they will be wicked no more.’ ” [Rebbi Meir] Prayed for mercy upon them, and they repented.
Bruriah taught that it is not only inappropriate to pray for the death of others, but also that it is incorrect to assume others cannot change. We must hope and pray that others can and will change and assist them to get there. The spiritual and ethical foundation of Judaism is free will, that we are all free to make choices and to change our ways. It is through kind gentleness (prayer and kindness) that we bring light to others. Even when her own sons passed away, Bruriah was able to comfort her husband and settle his mind. For this she was described as a fulfillment of the verse, “A woman of valor, who can find?” (Proverbs 31:10), (Midrash Mishlei 31). There are different Talmudic positions on her final days and death (some suggesting suicide out of shame, Kiddushin 80b), but it seems clear that she lived consistently with her values.
We are in need of thinkers and leaders like Bruriah today who are intensely committed to rigorous Jewish learning and to living with mercy and compassion. Bruriah comes to remind us that each of us has immense potential to grow intellectually, spiritually and morally and to help others to do so as well. We must consider the advice of Rav Tzadok HaKohen: “Just as one must believe in G-d, so must one believe in oneself ” (Tzidkat HaTzadik, 154).
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the executive director of the Valley Beit Midrash and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.