Self-censorship and its discontents - comment

I stopped by my student’s desk to see how her research was coming along. No stranger to the endless goldmine of internet mis/information, she was busy at work.

book censorship (photo credit: courtesy)
book censorship
(photo credit: courtesy)

I lied to one of my students.

I teach Judaic Studies to students in grades 6-8 at our local Jewish day school. Standing out among them, the girl to whom I lied is one of the kindest, most serious young people I have taught in over a decade. I value all my students, but I see her going places in the realm of Jewish scholarship and leadership, if she chooses those paths. To help her grow is a singular pedagogic honor for me.

One morning the class was doing research projects on the topic of heroes of the Talmud. These are the cast of rabbinic characters whose biographies are mostly moralistic legends intended to instruct the reader. I made sure to include the few women – mainly outstanding rabbinic wives – whose narratives need to be told to prevent the erasure of women from the largely male world of traditional Jewish discourse. I gave this girl the task of reporting about Beruriah, the brilliant wife of Rabbi Meir, the second century sage of the land of Israel.

Beruriah occupies a fraught place in rabbinic tradition, which highlights how she outshone rabbinic men in wisdom and scholarship, then demonizes her for not acknowledging her subservient place in the rabbinic gender hierarchy.

I stopped by my student’s desk to see how her research was coming along. No stranger to the endless goldmine of internet mis/information, she was busy at work.

“So, what have you found out about Beruriah?”

“Well, she was smarter than her brothers and there’s a story that she learned three hundred laws of Judaism from three hundred teachers in one day. Also, she taught her husband to pray that some bullies in their neighborhood would become good people instead of praying that they would die.”

“Amazing! You know that girls and women in those days didn’t get to study Torah like you can today. Beruriah was pretty cool. Do you think you have enough for your project?”

“Well, I have one more part I need to do. I read that some shameful things happened to her and that she died. How did she die?”

Such a strange question for a sixth grader to ask. I wondered if maybe she wasn’t asking me for information (all of which she had staring her in the face on Wikipedia), but for reassurance. The Talmud cryptically reports in one place that Rabbi Meir emigrated from Israel to Babylonia out of grief and shame over the “Beruriah Incident” (Tractate Avodah Zarah 18b). Rashi, the great medieval commentator, provides us with one version of Beruriah’s backstory.

Rabbi Meir sent one of his students to seduce Beruriah, to prove the accuracy of the Talmudic assertion that nashim kalot daatan, women are inherently shallow and undisciplined, an idea at which Beruriah rightly and openly scoffed. After the student successfully got her to sleep with him, she was so distraught at her behavior that she committed suicide.

“Please, God, no!”, I thought when my student asked me to tell her about Beruriah’s death. What motivated Rashi, a man whose three daughters’ biographies are laced with legends about their Torah scholarship, to repeat or perhaps write such a horrible story?

Was this demonizing judgment of Beruriah a misogynistic outlier from the medieval Ashkenazi world where Rashi lived or was it a reflection of a broader hatred of Jewish women’s empowerment, especially in matters of religion? And which was better: to risk exposing my student to it in the interests of honesty or to suppress it to prevent her from misunderstanding or even being damaged by it? Do I tell my sweet, gentle soul of a student about the ugly, vindictive way in which Beruriah was portrayed, or should I lie to her, because she was too immature to hear this legend?

“So, how did she die?” my student asked me again.

I DEMURRED uncomfortably for five seconds. “You know,” I responded slowly, sucking in my breath, “Beruriah died of old age.”

“OK,” she said, looking all too ready to believe whatever I told her.

I lied to my student. I was absolutely right to lie to her, and I feel as if I did something terribly wrong by lying to her. On the one hand, wasn’t it her parents’ job to talk with her about such disturbing material when she is old enough, not her male Talmud teacher’s?

On the other hand, my telling her the story could have given us an opening to think critically about it, thus modeling how to call out misogyny in the tradition. Perhaps I could have begun to give her the Jewish tools, even as early as middle school, to protest fiercely unjust and demeaning portrayals of women and others as the “Other” in at least some parts of the vast sea of Judaism.

My act of lying didn’t rise to the level of irrationality and malicious right-think, such as those of states forbidding teaching the history of racism in America or the McMinn County school board’s decision to remove Maus from its high school curricula. I would never forbid any of my students from reading complicated or disturbing books and articles, if they were germane to their classwork. I merely blocked my young scholar’s access to this one ancient story, presumably for her own good, by censoring myself.

Yet this mere self-censorship comes with a high potential price tag. My student may have been relieved to hear me tell her a kindler, gentler version of Beruriah’s life and reputed death; but she is an inquisitive kid who knows how to read and find things on the Internet. Assuming she reads on and discovers new information about this great woman, what she will now also know is that her teacher whom she trusts lied to her. Or she might decide that I didn’t trust her enough to respond as an emerging young adult – one who could even confront something as troubling as this story about Beruriah.

How could any of these failings of trust serve as a good basis for her positive relationship with Jewish knowledge and faith? As I wrote above, my student was asking me about Beruriah’s death out of a need for reassurance, but it may not have been the reassurance I initially assumed. Perhaps, she was looking for me to reassure her that I would tell her the truth.

That morning in class, I failed to remember that troubling reading content is not the culprit that damages students, the lack of context is. In the hands of good teachers honestly and courageously guiding their students’ reading at age-appropriate stages, even the most difficult books, ideas and essays can become lighter fluid, setting on fire a student’s imagination, outrage at injustice and critical thinking. In the hands of frightened or bigoted arbiters of law and policy who demonize the written word, those same books and essays become firebombs that blow up polarized communities whose ill-informed ranting about dangerous ideas produces way more scorching heat than light.

From the moment the first humans ate from the Tree of Knowledge, all ideas have been dangerous, threatening the asphyxiating status quo and the apathy and fear that form its substratum. Whether teaching Torah or any other subject, I constantly re-learn that education at its best begins with a commitment to discomfiting subversion, an intellectual version of what John Lewis called good trouble. As a Jew and a young woman, this girl deserved from me a religious role model who could say, in the name of religion, “This story about Beruriah’s death is also part of who we are as Jews, and it is not ok.” I hope that the next time she asks me for the truth. I’ll possess that everyday courage to lead her to it through good trouble’s door.

The writer is the rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living with his family in Albany, New York. He is the author of Cain v Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (Jewish Publication Society 2020).