Bruriah, who lived in Palestine in the 2nd century CE, is the only female sage quoted by name in the Talmud, one whose personal story has been the subject of apocryphal scandals, revisionist history and feminist reclamation.
2nd century Palestine was a hotbed of political and religious unrest; the Romans brutally oppressed anyone who might resist their rule, including scholars. Bruriah’s father, Hananiah ben Teradion, was one of the famous Ten Martyrs of that era. The Talmud describes Bruriah watching her father die for violating the Roman ban on teaching the Torah in public places. Rav Hananiah was wrapped in the Torah scroll. It was said that he faced death so heroically that his executioner jumped into the flames with him.
Before her father’s death, Bruriah joined him in the study of halakhah (Jewish law) and mishnah (the “oral Torah” that codified Jewish life). Her reputation as a scholar was well-known during her lifetime. In the Talmud (the famously dense and lengthy commentary on Jewish laws and customs), Bruriah comes across as sharp-tongued and unafraid to debate the men she studied with. She reportedly challenged her father in a discussion of ritual purity, and her insight and accuracy was praised by his colleague, Rabbi Judah Ben Bava (another of the Ten Martyrs). It was clear that she considered herself their equal, and that her fellow scholars respected her views. But Bruriah was not above mocking the misogyny of the laws she studied: the Talmud records an episode where she needled a fellow rabbi when he asked her: “Which way to Lod?” She shot back that could have asked directions in two words, “Where’s Lod?” instead of four, and that by using four words, he was breaking the Talmudic injunction not to speak to women unnecessarily.
By the medieval era, Bruriah’s image underwent an anti-feminist transformation. She was maligned by the medieval commentator Rashi, who created a scandalous story featuring Bruriah that survives to this day. In it, he says that Bruriah had scoffed at the Rabbinic dictum that “women are tempermental.” This dictum could also be translated as “women are easily seduced.” Rashi claimed that Rabbi Meir baal Hannes, her husband was deeply troubled to hear of his wife’s misbehavior, and told her, “By your life, you will end up proving the rabbis words to be true.” Rabbi Meir then set her up to be seduced by one of his students. It is said that Bruriah finally “acquiesced” to the seducer, when she learned that she’d been deceived by her husband, she was so ashamed that she hanged herself. Rabbi Meir was reportedly so stricken by remorse that he left Palestine to exile himself in Babylonia.
The story of Bruriah’s disgrace is almost certainly false and has long been debated among scholars. Rabbi Meir had supported a disastrously failed revolt against Roman rule–the Bar Kokhba rebellion—and it’s most likely that he and Bruriah fled Palestine to escape arrest by the Romans after her father was executed. That explanation was favored by other medieval (male) scholars who were suspicious of Rashi’s story. Bruriah’s reputation has been more or less reclaimed; it’s traditional among Orthodox rabbis and scholars today to name their daughters Bruriah in her honor. There is even a Modern Orthodox girls’ school in New Jersey named after Bruriah.
Modern Jewish (female) scholar Rabbi Tirzah Firestone notes that although the “seduction of Bruriah” story has survived it is most likely a medieval legend concocted to support the traditional image of women as weak and sexually corrupt, and to punish a woman who dared to join the upper echelons of male scholarship and discourage others who would follow her.