Sacred Fires: Berurya A Daughter, A Wife, But First a Woman

Sacred Fires: Berurya A Daughter, A Wife, But First a Woman
by Ronald N. Brown
Gefen Books (12 New St., Merrick, NY 11557), $24.95.

Never mind the subtitle; Berurya, one of a handful of scholarly women mentioned in the Talmud, is best known for two tragic events included in this historic novel. In the first, she prepared her husband Rabbi Meir for the news that their two sons had died by asking him: if someone lends you something of great value, would you return the possession when it was time? In the second, Rabbi Meir, in order to prove his argument that women are by nature faithless and emotional, sends one of his students to test his wife’s marital fidelity. Berurya succumbs to temptation and then commits suicide.

Set in the land of Israel in the first century of the Common Era, Sacred Fires opens when Berurya, as a teenager, witnesses her scholar father, Hananiah ben Teradyon, being burned at the stake by the Romans for refusing to uphold their edict not to teach Torah. She then returns to her parents’ village and learns that her mother has been killed and her sister sold into prostitution in Rome. The dramatic story unfolds as she meets Rabbi Meir, who helps her rescue her sister, she and Meir marry and raise a family and both study and teach. Throughout her life Berurya had to deal with the issues of a woman’s limited opportunities to learn and teach and to confront authority, especially the authority of her own husband.

This book reconstucts the difficult life of a courageous woman with a great mind and a generous spirit. It fills in some important blanks in a period that gave birth to rabbinic Judaism, an era of great creativity in the face of tragedy.