We all bring our biases to the texts we study. In studying Jewish texts, this is both healthy and deserves to be approached with self-awareness. It is only through bringing our biases to the texts of our tradition that we can continue to make these texts ‘live’ texts, in that they admit of constantly renewed interpretation. However, we also run the risk, by reading the texts exclusively through our biases, of selective reading — seeing only what we want to see, and ignoring any evidence to the contrary.
This issue arose when I was recently learning Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud, as I do weekly. On 8b, the Gemarah is in the middle of a discussion of מוציא שם רע, spreading gossip. The details are not of immediate import, but the discussion revolves around a series of suggested cases where, in a case where a husband accuses his wife of adultery, she cannot be put to death for committing a capital offence because of a lack of warning or witness testimony. One of the suggested cases involves an אשה חבירה, a scholarly woman, who does not need to be warned about transgressing because she is assumed to know the law.
As with all times when I come across a powerful female figure in Rabbinic literature, I was extremely excited. Here is a statement implying that the rabbis lived in communities with women who learned enough to merit the title ‘scholar’ and there was nothing wrong with such a figure being part of the community (as evidenced by the fact that no comment is made about this figure in the Gemarah). Nearly two millennia before the first beit midrash accepted women to study alongside men, the progenitors of Rabbinic Judaism had accepted the idea that women could become venerated in the most highly sought after position in Jewish culture — as a sage. While I always wish for more detail about such incidences of women in the Talmud, in a sense I am happier that this figure is presented and passed by as a case among many, since this proves more forcefully that a woman scholar was a regular part of life for (at least some of) the rabbis.
Is the text saying any of this? No, it seems clear that the above analysis comes fully from my own context, one which celebrates the inclusion of women in Torah study at the highest levels. What did the centuries of male readers of this passage do with such a figure living and studying alongside their rabbinic predecessors? While this question is almost surely unanswerable, the fact that women studying sacred texts was taboo for so long shows that the reality of women scholars did not penetrate too deeply.
Am I reading too much into this figure and her inclusion in the Talmud? Undoubtedly, though I could argue that, after centuries of neglect, such figures could use some compensatory spotlight. I facetiously added, when I first came across the passage, that the husband was (falsely) accusing his wife because she was the better Torah scholar than he! All joking aside, I believe that there is both a reason why such texts have been under-emphasized and why I — and those students of Jewish texts like me — choose to over-emphasize them now. Part of the brilliance of the study mechanism of chevruta is that, by always learning with another, we can soften the impact of reading texts too strongly through our own biases.