The Torch explores gender and religion in the Jewish community. Named for Deborah the Prophetess, "the woman of torches," the blog highlights the passion and fiery leadership of Jewish feminists, while evoking the powerful image of feminists "passing the torch" to a new generation. Disclaimer: All posts are contributed by third party authors. JOFA does not assume responsibility for the facts and opinions presented in them.
The following Thursday was Rosh Chodesh. All the women of the town and many visitors filled the kitchen and hallways of the Rebbetzin’s home, so that the entire house shone with the blaze of their white dresses.
Just as the Rebbetzin opened her Bible and began to retell the story of the men of Israel’s sin at Sinai and their redemption at the hands of the women, a timid knock sounded on the back door. The Gabbait opened it.
“Yes?” she asked little Beruri ben Shulamit. He looked up at her with his hands clasped over a worn copy of Shemot, the second book of the Torah. He had not had the courage to approach the front entrance where the important women had entered, despite the Rebbetzin’s instructions.
“Please,” he said. “The Rebbetzin said I could learn with the women today.”
The Gabbait began to laugh, but she looked into the boy’s face and understood the deep thirst in his soul. This confused and angered her, for she had only seen such a thirst in the faces of the women of the community who could not have children. A fifteen-year-old boy had no business looking like a barren woman.
“Go home,” she said curtly. “Do not make up stories about the Rebbetzin and do not chase after the learning of women, which is beyond you and will only cause you to stumble.” The Gabbait shut the door in Beruri’s face.
The boy stood on the doorstep for a few moments. He could not bear the thought of walking away but did not dare knock again. Instead, he wandered around the side of the house. He came to the window adjacent to the kitchen and crouched next to it, his ear pressed against the shutters.
Bits and pieces of the shiur floated out to him like crumbs thrown to a starving animal. He pushed against the rims of the shutters, but they were tightly sealed.
Looking up, Beruri caught sight of the chimney. Perhaps the words of Torah would pass more clearly through that opening. Using a handful of uneven bricks jutting out along the wall as footholds, Beruri began to climb the side of the house. He rose as steadily as a Kabbalist rising toward the infinite, drawing closer to knowledge, understanding, and wisdom with every step.
His fingers slipped. The boy tumbled to the ground with a loud cry.
When he rose to his feet, unhurt but shaken, he looked up into the angry eyes of the Gabbait. She took hold of the back of his new white shirt and pushed him through the kitchen entrance. The women turned in their seats and whispered to one another.
“He was trying to climb to the roof,” the Gabbait announced. “He wants to hear the Rebbetzin’s lesson.”
The whispers in the room broke into gasps and a few scattered laughs. Beruri looked down at his feet, his cheeks as white as one who has died of shame.
“A boy who wants to learn midrash? He’s like a rabbit hunting dogs,” chortled Yizreela the baker.
“Like a jackal trying to sing,” added Loruchama the jeweler.
“It’s an abomination,” shouted Gomer the innkeeper. Others added their own verdicts, until the room became a chorus of sharp words that fell upon the boy’s head like stones.
“Silence,” said the Rebbetzin. The room became still. The woman of God raised herself to her feet. Her face was grave. “Every word you say is like a destructive fire in a holy place.”
The Rebbetzin turned toward Beruri. “Come here,” she said.
The boy walked to the front of the room with slow steps, his gaze still fixed upon the floor. The Rebbetzin asked him in a soft voice, “Why did you come here?”
Beruri lifted his head. He met the deep eyes of the Rebbetzin and he was not afraid.
“I wanted to learn from the wisdom of women.”
“What do our mothers say about men who study the Prophets and the aggadatah?”
“That the faith in their hands is like an egg in a fox’s mouth.”
“Do you study the Prophets?”
“Do you study aggadot?”
“What is your faith like?”
The boy dropped his eyes. “Like an egg in a fox’s mouth,” he muttered.
“Then hold it gently,” said the Rebbetzin. “Come, Beruri son of Shulamit. Sit on my right.”
“But Rebbetzin,” protested one of the women. “It is forbidden!”
The Rebbetzin pointed to the empty chair at her side. Beruri sat. The Rebbetzin raised her hand, and the Gabbait brought the boy a chumash. It was the same book that he had dropped outside by the window.
“No one who yearns to approach the infinite may be denied,” said the Rebbetzin quietly. “Our mothers teach us that men are stiff-necked and easily led astray, but without them, who would build the houses where we live and study? Who would work our fields and bring home the fruit upon which we make blessings that are so precious to the Holy One, blessed be She? Never forget that men are the seeds from which holy women are created. If a man wishes to learn under my roof, I will not turn him back, lest the seed turn bitter and corrupt. How many women would climb the walls of my house to hear the words of Torah? This boy’s love of God is as pure as the gold of the menorah in the Temple, and had he lived in the times of revelation, he would have joined the women of Israel in refusing to build the golden calf.”
So she sat and expounded upon the deepest mysteries of the story of the calf; how the men had rebelled against God in the creation of an idol, so that authority was given to the women of Israel to lead the nation; how the infinite anger and mercy of God were revealed at the same moment to the entire nation; and how God sent Miriam a second pair of stone tablets after the sin, proof of a Mother’s love for Her people. “Miriam the Prophetess climbed to the top of Sinai like a boy climbing the walls of a house of learning,” said the Rebbetzin, and the women smiled at each other. But what had been malice was now transformed into joy. And Beruri sat on the Rebbetzin’s right hand, his back as straight as that of a prince, asking questions and drinking in the answers like a bee lapping up nectar.
At the end of the shiur, Beruri thanked the Rebbetzin with tears in his eyes and walked to the door. He was stopped by the Gabbait. She bent her proud head until she looked into small Beruri’s face and apologized for her hard-heartedness by the back door.
“It was my fault,” said Beruri. “The Rebbetzin told me to come to the front door, but I was too ashamed to approach with the women. Who knows what would have happened had I listened to the Rebbetzin?”
Yalta, a rich and important woman from the neighboring town of Kosyayin, heard Beruri’s words and said to herself, “Surely this is a wise and pious boy.” She visited the home of Shulamit bat Divri that very night and proposed a marriage between Beruri and her eldest daughter, who would soon become known all over the country as the wise and beloved Rebbetzin Meira. Even after Beruri moved to Kosyayin to be united with his bride (as it is written, “therefore man will leave the house of his father and his mother and he will cleave to his wife”), he returned to Tiflus on the first of each month to sit in the Rebbetzin’s kitchen and learn Torah from her mouth.
And what happened when the Rebbetzin made the decision to teach the secret wisdom of women to Beruri, the son of Shulamit? The famous storyteller of Pelech, Dina bat Leah, used to say that when the Rebbetzin announced her extraordinary ruling, the Heavenly Mother, Blessed be She, threw back Her head and cried, “Nitzchuni bnotai!” Which is to say, my daughters have defeated Me.
So it was and so it will be until the days of the Messiah, may she come speedily and in our days.
Read part 1 of this story here.
Pronounced: muh-NOHR-uh, Origin: Hebrew, a lamp or candelabra, often used to refer to the Hanukkah menorah, or Hanukkiah.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.