Sunday, January 20, 2008

Lust & Desire: Rabbi Meir & Beruriah

Most people know the story of Beruriah (which is brought down in a Rashi to Avodah Zarah 18b.) There, Beruriah was mocking the words "Women are of unstable temperament/ lightheaded" or "Nashim da'atan kalos." Rabbi Meir said to her, "By your life, you will ultimately affirm their words." He instructed one of his disciples to seduce her. [The student] urged her for many days, until she consented. When the matter became known to her she strangled herself, and Rabbi Meir fled out of disgrace." [1]

My friend Simcha pointed out something fascinating- Rabbi Meir also finds himself in a situation which is highly improper, and it also has to do with sexual matters!

מינך רבי מאיר הוה מתלוצץ בעוברי עבירה יומא חד אידמי ליה שטן כאיתתא בהך גיסא דנהרא לא הוה מברא נקט מצרא וקא עבר כי מטא פלגא מצרא שבקיה אמר אי לאו דקא מכרזי ברקיעא הזהרו בר' מאיר ותורתו שויתיה לדמך תרתי
~Kiddushin 81a

Rabbi Meir used to scoff at sinners for giving in to their desires. One day, Satan appeared to him in the guise of a beautiful woman on the other side of the river. There was no ferry, so Rabbi Meir grasped the rope-bridge and proceeded across. When he reached halfway, Satan left him saying: Had they not declared in Heaven, "Beware of Rabbi Meir and his Torah" your life would not have been worth two maahs [a maah is a small coin].

Now isn't that interesting? Here Rabbi Meir arranges this whole test for his wife in order to prove that "Nashim da'atan kalot" and yet when he is faced with a situation where he sees a beautiful woman, he doesn't even need to be seduced- he immediately desires her and comes to her!


Anonymous said...

And your point is?

Chana said...

Just that it's interesting, isn't it? The story of Beruriah is frequently quoted (to suggest that she was a flawed individual and/or ostensibly to support the statement "Nashim da'atan kalos") but her husband suffered from the same flaw!

This is a lovely example of the statement, "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

Ben Greenfield said...

Do we know where Rashi gets the story from? Do we have other examples of Rashi (on Shas) filling in such gaping holes in a story?

I've always been a little suspicious of it.

G said...

Just to cause problems...

What would have been the "sin" in his case?

Not "proper" perhaps but an outright "sin"...maybe not.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

cool, 'feminism-torah'.

Anonymous said...

Do we know where Rashi gets the story from?

The Jewish Encyclopedia says "The historical kernel of this story can not be disengaged. As told, the narrative is wholly at variance with what is known of Beruriah's character and that of R. Meïr."

According to Wikipedia (which I haven't been able to check) "Rabenu Nisim brings on a different explanation which is more close to the text. According to him, Rabbi Meir and Bruriah had to flee to Babylonia after the Romans executed her father, sold her mother to slavery and her sister to a brothel (to be rescued by Rabbi Meir) and were looking for her."

Anonymous said...

This story pops up in many forms with various rabbis. See end of Kiddushin (I should look it up, but it's 2am). It's questionable whether it actually has to do with R' Meir, or was a popular story attributed to several different rabbis to impart the same moral lesson, without any real relation to their historical personages.

However, the prevalence of the story in Talmudic literature would seem to make your nashim daatan kalot point nonetheless (or its prevalence may warrant revision of your initial understanding of that maxim, since it's so obvious a contradiction, unless the principle has different names for men and women).

Tobie said...

The whole Bruriah story has never made any level of sense to me. Firstly, because "daatan kalot" either means that women are stupid or that they are weak and flighty (the same phrase is used in another story to denote a likelihood of giving into interrogation). Giving into seduction proves neither of those things; at best, it would prove lustfulness and that's not what's being debated. Secondly, as stories all over the talmud and general life experience may point out, men are far more susceptible to seduction than women, so if Bruriah's giving in confirms the statement, then there are dozens of other stories that would confirm the statement "but men's daat is even more kal."

The only way I have of understanding it is that the story is not dealing with seduction per se, but with a general female inability to stand up to pressure. If so, R' Meir's own flights of passion are irrelevent- the point is not that she wanted to sleep with the student, it's that she gave into his nagging.

Another interesting thing about the second narrative is that afterwards, I think, R' Meir repents for mocking those who sin. If that is after the Bruriah story, it certainly suggests an interesting character development on his part.

Financial Artist said...

The phrase "nashim daatan kalos" is often cut short - the fourth and final word is "lehispatos - to be seduced." The idea of daatan kalos is specific to lehispatos; it's not a blanket description of women. It simply means that women are easily wooed - sexually or otherwise.