Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Bruria, Gender, and Thoughts About Health Care

In Uncategorized on March 18, 2010 at 7:13 am

E. J. Dionne in today’s Washington Post alerts us to a religious schism that would not normally come to popular attention.  The Nuns vs. the Bishops on Obamacare.  The Catholic Bishops “regrettably” cannot support the bill because in their understanding, the bill allows for federally funded abortions.  The nuns read it differently and even though they would have preferred different language, they see the bill as not doing so.

This week, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, claimed the flaws and loopholes in the bill’s abortion section are “so fundamental that they vitiate the good that the bill intends to promote.” As a result, he said, “the Catholic bishops regretfully hold that it must be opposed.”

Although the nuns would never support a bill that sanctions what they consider federally funded murder, they can live with these loopholes in order to bring health care to thirty million more Americans.  This dispute has ancient Talmudic resonance where the gender fault line is in sharp relief.  The Talmud, that mostly masculine book, records the words of Bruria, an acerbic Jewish female icon who is known for beating men at their own game.  She is the daughter and the wife of great Sages, and though not obligated to study, was known and admired for her learning.  In the Gemara in Eiruvin 53נ,

Rabbi Yossi Haglili was walking and saw Bruria. He asked her, “Which way shall one go to Lod?” She answered, “Glili, you fool, don’t you know it is written, “Do not engage a woman in too much conversation?” You should have said, “Where to Lod?”

Well. a pious reading would teach that she knew “her place”, but one can’t help but see that she was having a bit of fun here.  On the one hand, because of her womanliness, men should refrain from anything remotely resembling conversation, but on the other hand, she asserts her superiority by declaring that Glili is a fool.  Is she mocking the ruling as well? Even if she is, she is also submitting to it.  The editors of the Talmud are enjoying the light comeuppance, and insert this anecdote without commentary.

In Brachot,  Rabbi Meir is being hounded by hoodlums and prays that God have “mercy” on him and have them killed.  Bruria gently protests this position quoting the verse “He will expunge sins from the earth and the wicked will be no longer.” It is the sin, not the sinner, that should be expunged and it would be better to pray that they change their ways, than to wish them harm. Rebbe Meir does as she requested, and lo and behold, they changed their ways.” In this exchange, she relates to her husband as an equal without the taunts we witness in Eruvin.  Peoples lives are at stake, and this is not a time for witty repartee.

The nuns similarly have rebuked the Bishops. This is not a time for casuistry, and the parsing of language, 30,000,000 people are at risk for not having adequate access to health care. The Bishops may speak for themselves but the church does not have a monolithic voice, and our voice shall be heard.  The Talmud invokes the voice of individual women–not just Bruria–to remind those male legislators that God wishes them not only to do what is fair but to do what is right and merciful. If there is a way to preserve life without bringing harm to anyone, then that is always the preferred option.

Bruria could poke fun at the absurdities she encountered as one of the learned who was nevertheless barred from opportunities that her male counterparts enjoyed.  In her own way, she was reconciled to them, and her lively personality is immortalized by those who should have been most threatened by her temperament.  It is noteworthy that even though she came to a tragic ending, the Talmud honors her, by only alluding to the story as a possible reason for Rebbe Meir’s exile, but they would not taint her, or her husband with the details.

Bruria, I think, if she were here, would remind us of a simple truth.  The richest country in the world should be able to provide basic health care to all its citizens, period.  That simple fact has not been lost on the nuns, and thanks to Mr. Dionne for helping us here their voices.

  1. Wonderful post! I don’t often read the words “Bruria” and “nuns” in the same sentence, but you’ve done an admirable job of weaving these disparate things together.

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