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Women in the Hērbedestān

Strauch Schick, Shana. 2014. Women in the Hērbedestān: A re-examination of the Bavli’s Beruriah narratives in light of Middle Persian literature. Zion 79(3). 407–424.

The Babylonian Talmud contains a number of dicta which unambiguously exclude women from the study of Torah. Yet the narratives concerning Beruriah, supposedly the daughter of R. Hanina b. Teradyon and wife of R. Meir, suggest otherwise. She is depicted as having received formal instruction at the same level as rabbinic sages. Yet, these traditions appear only in the Babylonian Talmud, a few centuries after she would have lived, and contain a number of common literary motifs. This and other factors indicate the constructed nature of these stories, as David Goodblatt and Tal Ilan have noted. While it is possible to explain the local function of these narratives on literary and didactic grounds, given the Babylonian Talmud’s general stance regarding women and Torah study, the figure of a woman well-versed in Torah learning is indeed surprising.
This paper proposes that the appearance of the character of Beruriah is best understood within the Middle Persian milieu when the late Talmudic narratives arose. It is clear from Zoroastrian texts that religious study was a possibility open to men and women and that both were equally viable candidates to leave their home in order to engage in religious training at the Hērbedestān. A passage from Mādayān ī Hazār Dādestān, for example, depicts women who are well versed in jurisprudence and shares other significant parallels with the Beruriah narratives. By turning to relevant Middle Persian sources it thus becomes clear that the idea of the scholarly woman was not simply a literary motif called into existence, but was in fact a real possibility that Jews of Babylonia had to confront—a novel phenomenon unknown (or perhaps suppressed) in earlier Palestinian sources. Within a larger culture in which women participated in religious scholarly pursuits, the exclusion of women from Torah study and the community of scholars was addressed by the creation of Beruriah. Although the existence of a woman of Beruriah’s erudition within an elite rabbinic family could now be presented as a plausible historical persona, her existence served as a cautionary tale to justify the importance of keeping Torah study exclusively male.