'I was so hurt that the rabbis could see us this way'

A redemptive reading of Talmudic women reveals ‘radical truths’ hidden by the rabbis

Perfect for Shavuot learning, a new book by thinker Gila Fine reexamines the complex narratives of women in the Talmud, giving them new life with insightful second readings

'The Madwoman in the Rabbi's Attic,' by Gila Fine. (Courtesy)
'The Madwoman in the Rabbi's Attic,' by Gila Fine. (Courtesy)

Three days before her 12th birthday, Gila Fine found herself alone in her grandparents’ London home with a pile of books and a directive to write her bat mitzvah speech. Unsure where to start, she opened the “Sefer Ha’Agaddah,” or “Book of Legends,” to the section titled “Women.” A few stories in, she burst into tears.

The women in the stories were weak, irrational, greedy and vain.

“I was so hurt, so deeply offended that the rabbis, the architects of my religion and heroes of my childhood, could have such a low opinion of me and my kind,” she wrote in her latest book, “The Madwoman in the Rabbi’s Attic: Rereading the Women of the Talmud.”

On this holiday of Shavuot, when people stay up all night studying Torah in commemoration of the giving of the commandments on Mount Sinai, many girls and women are, like Fine, confronted with less-than-favorable portrayals of women in the Jewish literary canon.

However, instead of writing off Jewish academia forever, Fine dug deeper and, with her new book, invites others to do the same.

The book focuses on the six women in the Talmud who are protagonists of their own stories: Yalta (The Shrew), Homa (The Femme Fatale), Marta (The Prima Donna), Heruta (The Madonna/Whore), Beruria (The Overreacherix), and Ima Shalom (The Angel in the House). Each one, as the title suggests, receives a rereading. Fine posits that a singular, literal reading of each story puts the women into one-dimensional, often sexist stereotypes.

“One of the hallmarks of rabbinic storytelling is what I call the ‘false front,'” Fine explained in a recent interview with The Times of Israel. “So what the story seems to be saying and what it is actually saying are often diametrically opposed. The rabbis write their stories to deliberately mislead us, so if we only read the story once, we will come away with the wrong idea.”

In each chapter of Fine’s book, she walks the reader through two separate readings of a story. She provides additional context and commentary between sections, which she refers to as “Zooming In” and “Zooming Out.” She explained that just reading a story twice is not enough — readers must establish parameters for each reading to break through the rabbis’ “false front.”

“If we do [the readings] properly,” she said, “we find almost always that the false front will fall away. In its place will emerge a richer, more complex, often far more radical truth the rabbis wanted us to learn from it.”

As is customary in the rabbinic tradition, Fine brought in an additional source, Jewish-American poet Adrienne Rich, whose quote appears in the book’s epigraph: “Revision — the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction — is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.”

Gila Fine is seen with Rabbi Leon Morris at a book launch at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem in late May, 2024. (Courtesy)

Don’t say the ‘F-Word’

Beruria, the first-century wife of the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Meir whom Fine dubs “The Overreacherix,” may be the most famous of Fine’s characters given new life through rereading. She is one of the precious few women in rabbinic literature described as a Torah scholar, a woman living in the world of men inside the beit midrash, or study hall. She tends towards arrogance, which is always justified as she consistently outsmarts her male counterparts in Torah study.

In the classical Jewish textual canon, however, Beruria is brought low by 11th-century French Jewish scholar Rashi. In his commentary on one section of the Talmudic tractate of Avoda Zara, Rashi claims that Beruria was shamefully seduced by one of her husband’s students and killed herself because of it.

Fine delicately expunges this incident from Beruria’s legacy, proving that it is not based on any Talmudic source and thus redeeming her character with the power of a second reading.

She writes that the rabbis of the Talmud had a much more nuanced and sensitive understanding of women than they are often given credit for. However, Fine is careful not to use “the F-word,” feminist, when discussing them, as it would be anachronistic to attribute a modern school of thought to the thinkers of antiquity.

“I never set out to find feminism in the stories of the rabbis,” Fine said. “Reading is a relationship. And just like any healthy relationship, we shouldn’t impose ourselves on the other person. So, we [encounter] a Talmudic text with all of our beliefs and biases.”

‘The Madwoman in the Rabbi’s Attic,’ by Gila Fine. (Courtesy)

“But we also have to allow the Talmud to come to its encounter with us with its similar beliefs and biases,” she said. “And if we are to read the Talmud on its terms rather than our own, we must be prepared to listen, even when the Talmud doesn’t say what we want to hear.”

Fine does not sugarcoat any of those difficult moments or the fact that the Talmud is rife with patriarchy. However, she points out that there are moments in which “the text transcends its historical context and tells us a story that either critiques patriarchal culture… or suggests a feminine point of view.” Fine chooses to focus on those redemptive moments in her book.

From her bat mitzvah study, Fine’s relationship with Judaism was forever changed. It began a decades-long struggle with rabbinic Judaism, leading her to dive deep into Talmud study and become a scholar and a teacher. She kept searching until she found the answers to her 12-year-old self’s questions, which she turned into a book for anyone else searching for answers.

The book is equally engaging and accessible to seasoned learners and those who have never studied rabbinic literature. The prose is both fun and forceful, and at just over 200 pages, it is an ideal read for those looking for new material to learn on Shavuot — particularly for those troubled by the Talmud’s treatment of women.

Most Popular
read more: