Although most Talmudic personages are men, we also find women among these luminaries and scholars, and the Talmudic literature is not afraid to provide examples of when these women outshined the men.
For example, one of the Talmud’s sharpest minds belonged to a woman we know as Yalta. There are those who say she was married to the Talmudic sage Nachman. Others say that she was the daughter of Rosh Geluta, or the Babylonian head of the Jewish community during the Talmudic period.
In reality, there is no way to determine which of the stories involving Yalta is correct. As in so much of the Talmudic literature, we are forced to ask: Are these stories true depictions or symbolic vignettes? Although we do not know much about her life, what we do know tells us not only a great deal about her but also about the role of women in ancient Babylonia.
Were these stories retold and in their multiple retellings shaped to symbolize the narration’s zeitgeist? The fact that they may have been told leads us to ask why. What was so important about her and the stories told about her life? What pearls of wisdom did they, and do they still, hold? What made them worthy of being retold and being remembered? What principles determine who is included and who is left out of the historical narrative? What these tales help us to understand is something about the role of women in ancient Jewish Babylonian society and the beliefs that shaped not only modern Judaism but in reality much of Western civilization.
To all these questions we must plead ignorance. What we do know is that humans tell stories, create legends, and if we listen carefully to the legend then we can learn a great deal about the spirit of the times and perhaps, unencumbered by factual details, a deeper understanding regarding the role of women in both ancient and modern society.
The tales revolving around Yalta are universal tales. Although set in a particular period and age, they provide universal truths that — like the Talmud itself — go beyond geographic boundaries, specific cultures and time itself.
It is from this perspective that we turn to the brilliant wife of Rabbi Nachman who lived in the first half of the fourth century.
Yalta liked to ask questions. Not simple or obvious questions, but deep philosophical questions. For example, she noted that there are often things or actions that the Torah prohibited, but at the same time there are equivalent things (or actions) permitted. Why? Was she attempting to discover that faith is not necessarily logical or that legal systems need what moderns call loopholes in order to function? On a still deeper level, the fact that Yalta, living in a man’s world, could ask such questions tells us a great deal about the text’s attitude toward women.
Yalta was well acquainted with the Biblical text. A fervent supporter for the rights of woman, she was a feminist who lived thousands of years before modern activists ever thought of the term. From her perspective, men and women were made in the image of God, and as such she merely assumed that a woman had as much of a right as a man to question, debate, and to academically achieve. Was her theory of equivalents the earliest known form of feminist theory? A second Talmudic tale would seem to underline this possibility.
We turn to the tale of Ulla. The Talmud speaks of a scholar by the name of Ulla. Ulla was a frequent traveler between Israel and Babylon. It appears that Ulla was not only an intellectual snob but also a highly sarcastic person. The text reports that Ulla was dismissive of women and their opinions. A less forceful woman might have cowered before Ulla, but not Yalta.
Legend has it that when Ulla failed to take her opinions seriously, Yalta broke 400 bottles of wine as an indication that Ulla would not dismiss her ideas simply because she was a woman. By her actions, was Yalta teaching us that things are less important than principle and a woman’s opinion expressed was a valuable as that of a man’s?
We know very little else about her. We have no idea if she was beautiful or talented. Did she cook or sew? Perhaps that information is omitted to say that she was more than a housewife but a scholar. What mattered was not the way she looked but the way she thought. What we do know is that she was a brilliant scholar, a fierce protector of her husband and an example of a proud woman who cowered to and before no one.
Perhaps the Talmud leaves out the other details as a story in itself. It was her capabilities, and not the minor details of her life, that make her noteworthy. Yalta was a woman who lived outside of prescribed gender roles and chose simply to be a human being. By retelling her tale, we learn that Yalta was one of the early, and sadly often forgotten by modern feminists, mothers of women’s rights. Perhaps thousands of years later her descendents shall rewrite her back not only into Jewish history but also the history of the fight for women’s equality.
Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He is a chaplain for the College Station Police Department and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.