She was married to a rabbi. But I wonder now, was she also aspiring to become a rabbi?
We are told that she met with a tragic end, according to a medieval story.
The story briefly reports that Beruryah was "seduced" in a plot by rabbis and rabbinical students in a scheme to discredit her. When her act of immorality became public she could not bear the humiliation and killed herself. More on this in a moment.
But first, an example of Beruryah's legendary morality: the Talmud attributes in one source a moral superiority to Beruryah (aka Beruriah), the wife of Rabbi Meir, as I summed it up in an short article:
... the rabbinic traditions do portray Beruryah as a sensitive yet assertive figure. The Talmud recounts anecdotes illustrating Beruryah's piety, compassion and wit. In one source she admonishes her husband Meir not to be angry at his enemies and not to pray for their death. She suggests that instead he pray that their sins cease and that they repent (b. Berakhot 10a).The great rabbi was dressed down by his wife for letting his emotions obscure his ethics.
I wonder if that is why Rashi, the medieval commentator went ahead to discredit Beruryah with this other story that has no antecedent in rabbinic literature that says she was unfaithful to her husband by having sex with his student, and then in shame she committed suicide.
Rashi's commentary to b. 'Avodah Zarah 18b, on the phrase, "And some say because of the Beruryah incident."
One time she [Beruryah] mocked what the sages said [cf. b. Qiddushin 80b], "Women are flighty." He [Meir] said to her, "By your life! You will eventually concede [the correctness of] their words."
He instructed one of his disciples to tempt her to infidelity. He [the disciple] urged her for many days, until she consented.But wait, wait. I have a bunch of questions about this juicy story. Did she "consent" or did the student finally just force her to submit? Was this a seduction or was it a rape? We have only the testimony of the men, not of the woman who was the target and the victim. What would Beruryah have said to the local police about this incident? We hear no voice at all from her in that brief story.
When the matter became known to her, she strangled herself, while Rabbi Meir fled because of the disgrace.
Indeed it's legitimate to ask if Rashi made up this story out of whole cloth, since it appears nowhere else in rabbinic literature. But even if Rashi had found this anecdote somewhere in an authoritative Midrash collection, I wonder, why did he choose to reproduce it? And why didn't he tell us where he found it? Rashi could have exercised a don't tell policy and left Beruryah's reputation intact. Why didn't he do that?
Rashi is known as one of the leading rabbis ever. He was primarily a commentator, and an anthologizer. But he is considered by many to have been the greatest exegete of all times.
My view is that in no way should we accept that this event was "historical" or "biographical" given the strange nature of the tradition's first appearance in the eleventh century.
The Beruryah incident text describes a cunning premeditated seduction scheme hatched by a jealous and short-tempered husband and executed through his misuse of his authority over his students. All of the blame for this perverse plot of seduction rests on Meir.
And yet, the more I think about this short tale, the more I conclude that no, this pious woman did not consent to sex, and that yes, it is likely that Beruryah was raped by her husband's student who failed after all his attempts to seduce her.
But lucky for Meir, the story is a complete fiction inserted as a bawdy tale by a French rabbi into his Talmudic commentary, perhaps to entertain, or perhaps to teach us a lesson.
If the latter, then it's quite a bizarre and negative lesson in my humble opinion. Rashi's little narrative teaches us that a great rabbinic master hatched a plot to send a student to seduce his wife because she was saying things that mocked a rabbinic teaching about the "flighty" nature and character of all women.
Yes, the storied outcome of Meir's plot was tragic for Beruryah and for him. Was Rashi trying to warn his fellow eleventh century French rabbis not to send their students to seduce their uppity wives because the results could be tragic?
So far that's the best I can come up with to justify even slightly the transmission of such an awful fable. And it begs the question: what was Rashi thinking?
Postscript for 2017:
If Beruryah were alive today, would she go to rabbinic school and seek ordination? Would the right wing rabbinic organizations condemn her for doing that?
Or perhaps if she opted to pursue such a radical path, would her husband engage a prominent New Jersey real estate magnate to hire a male prostitute to seduce her with the intent of blackmailing her.
You do know that those sorts of corrupt immoral schemes can backfire and lead to jail time, in fiction and in reality.
You can review the whole corpus of the Talmud's traditions of the great woman, Beruryah, reproduced below in my short encyclopedia article.
BERURYAH, Second Century C.E., Israel (Article by Tzvee Zahavy in the Encyclopedia of Religion)
Beruryah was one of the few famous women in rabbinic Judaism of late antiquity. She was the daughter of R. Hananyah ben Teradyon, wife of R. Meir.
In rabbinic sources Beruryah appears several times together with the rabbis of the generation of scholars centered around the Galilean town of Usha. She is mentioned twice in Tosefta (in T. Kelim B.M. 1:6 by name and referred to in T. Kelim B.Q. 4:17 as the daughter of R. Hananyah ben Teradyon) and seven times in the Babylonian Talmud.The Beruryah Texts
Beruryah's contemporary importance lies in her prominence as a rare woman-scholar in the male-dominated rabbinic culture. Goodblatt believes that Beruryah exemplifies the possibility, though quite uncommon, of a woman receiving formal education within rabbinic society. Goodblatt argues however that the traditions which ascribe rabbinic learning to Beruryah appear to be late, not telling us about Roman Palestine, the setting which they depict, but informing us better concerning the situation of Sassanian Babylonia, the place where they were formulated in the process of Talmudic compilation.
Whether historical or not, the rabbinic traditions do portray Beruryah as a sensitive yet assertive figure. The Talmud recounts anecdotes illustrating Beruryah's piety, compassion and wit. In one source she admonishes her husband Meir not to be angry at his enemies and not to pray for their death. She suggests that instead he pray that their sins cease and that they repent (b. Berakhot 10a).
When two of her sons died one Sabbath day, a story in the Midrash reports that she delayed telling her husband until Saturday night when he had finished observing the Sabbath day in peace (Midrash to Proverbs 31:10).
The Talmud also recounts anecdotes of Beruryah's sharp wit. When Yose the Galilean asks her for directions on the road, one story tells us, she derides him for speaking to much with a woman (b. `Eruvin 53b).
The folklore surrounding Beruryah is extensive and poignant. Accounts which weave together the rabbinic sources retell the tragic events of Beruryah's life and the life of her family. According to tradition, Beruryah's father was martyred in the Bar Kokhba rebellion. Two of her sons died suddenly one Sabbath day. Her sister was taken captive to Rome. Her brother became a brigand, possibly an anti-Roman terrorist, and was murdered.
The drama of her life climaxes in the so-called Beruryah Incident. She is said in an eleventh century tradition preserved by the French rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi commentary to Talmud Babli Avodah Zarah 18b) to have mocked a mysogynistic rabbinic tradition which labelled women as flighty. Meir is said to have sent a student to tempt her to prove her actions were wrong. Tragically, she is thought to have committed suicide after submitting to the advances of her husband's disciple.
One study (Goodblatt) takes a skeptical view of the identification of Beruryah as the wife of Meir and the daughter of Hananyah ben Teradyon. It is thought that these associations are late Babylonian inventions.
David Goodblatt, "The Beruryah Traditions," in Persons and Institutions in Early Rabbinic Judaism, ed. W. Green (Missoula, 1977), pp. 207-229 translates and analyzes all of the materials relating to Beruryah in rabbinic literature. The texts below are based on his article.
1. Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berakhot 10a
Certain brigands who were in the neighborhood of Rabbi Meir used to trouble him greatly. He prayed [lit.: sought mercy] that they die. Beruryah his wife (devethu) said to him, "What is your opinion [i.e., on what do you base your prayer?] Because it is written [Psalms 104:35], 'Let sins cease...?' Is 'sinners' written? [Rather] 'sins' is written. Furthermore, cast your eyes to the end of the verse, 'And they are wicked no more.' Since sins will cease, they will be wicked no more. So pray that they repent and be wicked no more. He prayed for them, and they repented.
2. Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 10a
A certain Sadducee said to Beruryah, "It is written [Is. 54:1], 'Sing, O barren one, who did not bear.' Because she did not bear [should she] sing?" She said to him, "Fool. Cast your eyes to the end of the verse where is written, 'For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her that married, says the lord.' What then does, 'Barren one who did not bear' mean? [It implies that you] rejoice, sons of the assembly of Israel, who resemble a barren woman who did not bear sons of gehenna like you."
3. Babylonian Talmud 'Eruvin 53b
Rabbi Yosi the Galilean was going along the road. He met Beruryah. He said to her, "By which road shall we go to Lod?" She said to him, "Galilean fool! Did not the sages say, 'Do not talk too much with a woman' [Mishnah Avot 1:5, b. Nedarim 20a]? You should have said, 'By which to Lod?'"
4. Babylonian Talmud 'Eruvin 53b-54a
Beruryah found a certain disciple who was reciting his lesson in a whisper. She [kicked] derided him and said to him, "Is it not written [2 Samuel 23:5], 'Ordered in all and secure?' [That is,] if it is ordered by means of [all] your 248 limbs, it will be preserved. But if not, it will not be preserved.
5. Babylonian Talmud Pesahim 62b
Rabbi Simlai came before Rabbi Yohanan and said to him, "Let the master teach me the Book of Genealogies (sefer yuhasin)." He said to him, "Where are you from? He answered, "From Lod." "And where is your residence?" In Nehardea." He said to him, "One engages in discussion neither with Lodites nor with Nehardeans. How much more so with you who are from Lod and whose residence is in Nehardea." He pressed him, and he consented. He [Simlai] said to him, "Let the master teach me [the material] in three months." He [Yohanan] picked up a clod, threw it at him, and said to him, "If Beruryah, the wife (devethu) of Rabbi Meir, the daughter of Rabbi Hananyah ben Teradyon, learned 300 traditions in a day from 300 masters, and even so did not fulfill her obligations in three years--how can you say in three months? As he [Simlai] was getting up to go he said to him, "Master, what is [the difference] between 'for its own sake' and 'not for its own sake,' [between] 'for those who eat it' and 'not for those who eat it' [referring to Mishnah Pesahim 5:2-3]?" He said to him, Since you are a disciple of the masters (surba merabbanan), come and I will tell you..."
6. Tosefta Kelim Bava Mesi'a' 1:6
A claustra--Rabbi Tarfon declares unclean, but the sages declare clean. And Beruryah says, "One removes it from this door and hangs it on another, on the Sabbath."
These things were said to Rabbi Joshua. He said, "Beruryah said well."
7. Midrash Sifré Deuteronomy, S307, ed. Finkelstein, p. 346
Another matter: "The Rock, his work is perfect" (Deut. 32:4a),--when they arrested Rabbi Hananyah ben Teradyon, he was sentenced to be burned together with his book. They said to him, "You have been sentenced to be burned with your book." He recited this verse, "The Rock, his work is perfect [for all his ways are justice]."
They said to his wife, "Your husband has been sentenced to be burned, and you [have been sentenced] to be killed." She recited this verse, "A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, [just and right is he] (Deut. 32:4b)."
They said to his daughter [Beruryah], "Your father has been sentenced to be burned, your mother to be killed, and you [have been sentenced] to do work'" She recited this verse (Jer. 32:19), "Great in counsel and mighty in deed; whose eyes are open to all the ways of men, rewarding every man according to his ways and according to the fruit of his doings."
Rabbi [Yehudah the Patriarch] said, "How great are these three righteous people! In the hour of their distress they summoned three verses vindicating [God's] judgment--which is unprecedented in all of Scripture. The three of them directed their hearts and vindicated the judgment for themselves."
8. Minor Tractates, Semahot, Chapter 12, end
It happened that the son of Rabbi Hanina ben Tardion [sic] fell into evil ways. Brigands seized him and slew him. His mutilated body was found after three days. They wrapped it in a net and placed it on a bier. They then brought him into the city and acclaimed him by praising his father.
His father cited this verse for him: And thou moan, when thine end cometh, when thy flesh and thy body are consumed, and say 'How have I hated instruction, and my heart despised reproof, neither have I hearkened to the voice of my teacher, nor inclined my ear to them that instructed me I was nigh in all evil' (Prov. 5:14). Having finished, he went back to the beginning of the verse.
His mother cited this verse for him: A foolish son is a vexation to his father, and bitterness to her that bore him (ibid., 17:28)
His sister [Beruryah] cited this verse for him: Bread of falsehood is sweet to a man; but afterwards his mouth shall He filled with gravel (ibid. 20:17).
9. Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 18a
Our masters taught (teno rabbanan): When Rabbi Yosi ben Qisma took sick, Rabbi Hananyah ben Teradyon came to visit him....They [the Roman authorities] found Rabbi Hananyah ben Teradyon sitting and engaging in Torah, convening public assemblies, and a Torah scroll was in his breast pocket. They brought him, wound the Torah scroll around him, surrounded him with bundles of twigs, and set them on fire. They brought wool sponges, soaked them in water, and laid them on his breast so that he would not die quickly. His daughter [Beruryah] said to him, "Father, how can I see you thus!" He said to her, "If I were being burned alone, the matter would be hard for me. But now that I am burned. together with the Torah scroll--he who seeks [to avenge] the humiliation of the Torah scroll will seek to avenge my humiliation."
10. Midrash Mishle [Proverbs], ad 3l:10
Another matter [to explain the verse], "A good wife who can find (Prov. 31:10)?" It once happened that Rabbi Meir was sitting and lecturing in the house of study on Sabbath after-noon, and his two sons died What did their mother [Beruryah] do? She laid the two of them on the bed and spread a sheet over them.
After the departure of the Sabbath, Rabbi Meir came home from the house of study. He said to her where are my two sons?" She said, "They went to the house of study.'' He said, "I was watching the house of study, and I did not see them."
She gave him a cup for havdalah, and he recited the havdalah prayer. He again said, ''Where are my two sons?" She said to him, "They went to another place and will soon come."
She set food before him, and he ate and blessed. After he blessed, she said, "Master, I have a question to ask you." He said to her, "Ask your question." She said to him, "Master, some time ago a man came and gave me something to keep for him. Now he comes and seeks to take it. Shall we return it to him or not?" He said to her, "Daughter, whoever has an object in trust must return it to its owner." She said to him, "Master, I would not have given it to him without your knowledge."
What did she do? She took him by the hand and led him up to the room. She led him to the bed and removed the sheet that was on them. When he saw the two of them lying dead on the bed, he began to cry and say, "My sons, my sons..."
At that time she said to Rabbi Meir, "Master, did you not say to me that I must return the trust to its master? He said, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21).
R. Hanina said, "In this way she comforted him, and his mind was set at ease. Regarding such an instance does it say, "A good wife who can find?"
11. Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 18b
Beruryah the wife (devethu) of Rabbi Meir was the daughter of Rabbi Hananyah ben Teradyon. She said to him [Meir], "It is a disgrace for me that my sister sits in a house of prostitution. He took three qabs of denarii and went [to Rome] He said, "If no forbidden thing has been done to her, a miracle will occur. If she has done what is forbidden, no miracle will occur for her."
He went and presented himself [to the sister] as cavalryman [or: member of the equestrian class]. He said to her, "Submit to me." She said, "I am menstruating." He said to her, "I am very aroused [and do not care]." She said to him, "There are many more beautiful than I." He said, "One may infer that she has not done what is forbidden. She says this to whoever comes."
He went to her keeper and said, "Give her over." He said, "I fear the government." He said to him, "Take the three qabs of denarii. Use half for bribes and keep half." He said, "When the half [for bribing] is gone, what shall I do?" He said to him, "Say 'God of Meir, answer me,' and you will be saved." He said to him, "Who says that it is so?" Some man-eating dogs were there. He [Meir] picked up a clod and threw it at them. They came to eat him, and he said, "God of Meir, answer me," and they left him alone. So he [the keeper] gave her to him.
Eventually the matter became known to the palace. They brought him, [the keeper] and crucified him. He said, "God of Meir, answer me," and he brought him down. They said to him, "What is this?" He told them what happened. They carved the likeness of Rabbi Meir on the gates of Rome and said that whoever sees this face should bring him [to the authorities]. One day they saw him and ran after him. He ran away from them and entered a house of prostitution. Some say he saw gentile food, dipped one finger in it, and licked another [giving the impression that he ate food unfit for Jews]. Others say that Elijah appeared in the form of a prostitute and embraced him. They said, "If that were Rabbi Meir, he would never have done that."
He arose and fled to Babylonia. Some say because of this matter, while others say because of the Beruryah incident.
12. Rashi's commentary to b. 'Avodah Zarah 18b, on the phrase, "And some say because of the Beruryah incident."
One time she [Beruryah] mocked what the sages said [cf. b. Qiddushin 80b], "Women are flighty." He [Meir] said to her, "By your life! You will eventually concede [the correctness of] their words." He instructed one of his disciples to tempt her to infidelity. He [the disciple] urged her for many days, until she consented.
When the matter became known to her, she strangled herself, while Rabbi Meir fled because of the disgrace.
Adler, R. "The Virgin in the Brothel and Other Anomalies: Character and Context in the Legend of Beruryah." Tikkun 3/6 (1988) 28-32, 102-105.
Boyarin, D. "Reading Androcentrism against the Grain: Women, Sex, and Torah-Study." Poetics 12 (199 ), 29-53.
Goodblatt, D. "The Beruryah Traditions." JJS 26 (1975) 68-85.
Ilan, T. Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995. (Beruryah, 197-200)
_____. "The Quest for the Historical Beruryah, Rachel, and Imma Shalom." AJSReview 22 (1997) 1-17.
Wegner, J.R. "The Image and Status of Women in Classical Rabbinic Judaism." In Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, ed. by J. Baskin, 68-93. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1991.
-modified from my post of 6/27/06