In Memoriam: Rebbetzin Bruria David

Judith Bleich Tradition Online | May 1, 2023

Saddened and grieved by the loss of Rebbetzin Bruria David z”l, a very dear and precious lifelong friend, I would have preferred not to comment. My friend was by nature an extremely private person. She shunned all form of publicity, public display or intrusion. The levayah, taking place as it did on Pesach, a time at which eulogies are eschewed, would, even at any other time, have been in accordance with her deepest wishes. There are situations when dumiya tehilla, silence is the greater accolade. 

This loss, however, is not simply personal but communal, an irreplaceable communal loss, a loss that requires comment for the purpose of identifying how she was exemplary and why the lessons to be gleaned from her life are in the nature of ka-zeh re’eh ve-kadesh!

As an educator, Rebbetzin David was singular, unique, eigenartig. For well over six decades, first as a teacher and later as both master teacher and guiding spirit at the helm of the Beth Jacob Jerusalem (BJJ) women’s seminary, she served with uncommon devotion and dedication. It was she who fashioned BJJ into the elite of seminaries. 

Rebbetzin David z”l browsing at Biegeleisen Seforim, courtesy: Shikey Press

Rebbetzin David, as her students referred to her, had a keen sense of humor; she appreciated a witticism or bon mot. A historian, she was attuned to the complications and implications reflected in the twists and turns of contemporary events and would not fail to remark upon the ironies of fate. An avid reader, she would be bemused – and often amused – by academic trends and fads that come and go. However, in all matters pertaining to hinnukh and to any aspect of the educational endeavor, she was invariably totally serious. In such matters, there was not a scintilla of frivolousness, not a whiff of whimsy, not a smidgen of leichtsinnigkeit. Every detail subject to her pedagogical oversight, from the interviews and selection process to the curriculum, subject matter, texts, assignments and examinations, to the choice of staff, extra-curricular activities, dormitory and guidance, to alumnae lectures and activities, all were scrutinized with absolute meticulousness and conscientiousness. Rebbetzin David held very firm and principled convictions regarding what she wished to impart to her students and implemented her goals with utmost rigor. 

Concern for all alumnae continued far beyond the termination of their formal enrollment. She continued to offer guidance for further education, for career choice, for shidduchim, for rearing children. She expended much time and effort in seeking out others to assume ongoing mentorship of students for whom she found such guidance necessary, particularly those leaving the rarified atmosphere of BJJ for secular campuses. To any former student her door was always open, her ear attuned, her heart responsive. 

Transmission of Torah was her passion. As a young woman and novice instructor, she overcame an innate diffidence and shyness. The life-threatening ordeal of the hijacking of her family and their detention in Jordan in 1970 were a turning point subsequent to which she seemed to redouble her efforts to utilize life’s opportunities to disseminate Torah teachings with increasing confidence and intensity. Although she counseled young women entering a wide variety of professions, a promising protégée embarking on a teaching career gave her exceptional joy.

Herself a genuine scholar thoroughly engrossed in academic pursuits, her expectations of her students were always maximal. The bar she set was high in terms of knowledge and comportment, religious observance and spirituality. Well did she understand the rabbinic dictum Barati yetzer hara barati lo Torah tavlin – I created the evil inclination; I created Torah as its antidote (tavlin)” (Kiddushin 30b). The word “tavlin,” literally “spices,” is used advisedly. Spices accomplish two purposes; they have the power to impart flavor and they are capable of preserving food from degeneration and spoilage. Rebbetzin David knew that those two functions go hand in hand. The desired goals of women’s education cannot be attained by superficial blandness; the overarching purpose is to preserve against corrosive influences. To be effective, tavlin must be strong and pungent. 

“House and riches are the inheritance of fathers, but a prudent wife comes from God” (Proverbs 19:14). The second clause of the verse, “Me-Hashem ishah maskelet” is generally translated as I quote here. Maskelet also connotes “wise” or “learned.” It is not simply a wise wife who is a gift from God; her wisdom and erudition are also the products of divine grace. Intellect is a heavenly gift; the kunst is not to fritter away that gift but to cultivate it. Rebbetzin David spent her days in continuous learning and intellectual growth. In addition to spending a lifetime in close proximity to consummate scholars, her illustrious father, Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt”l, and her eminent husband, Rav Yonasan David (יבל”ח), she dedicated herself to the study of sacred texts. 

Her broad range of knowledge encompassed an array of works devoted to mahshava and mussar. Immersed in the addresses and writings of her revered father, she was proficient not only in his oeuvre which she quoted virtually verbatim but also in the sources upon which he drew. Her knowledge of Maharal, in particular, was phenomenal. Her own facility in grasping rabbinic texts is evident in her dissertation elucidating the scholarship of Maharatz Chajes. Knowledge of classic texts was supplemented by ongoing learning and study. She spent untold hours in the Hebrew University library, perused each edition of Hama’yan from cover to cover, and was no stranger to the pages of TRADITION

Intellectually curious, she continuously sought to expand her areas of knowledge. I fondly recall an excursion with our respective husbands to Shechem during a period in the 1970s when such a journey was not fraught with danger. We met with the high priest and a number of members of the Samaritan community. The ensuing discussion, in which she was an active participant, focused upon the suitability of the slaughtering knife that our husbands carefully examined and the halakhic status of a tuft of wool remaining at the side of the pit in which the Samaritans had roasted their korban Pesach. Subsequently, I learned that, intrigued by the experience, she mastered a vast amount of literature regarding the Samaritans – their history, sociology, and religious practices. 

Nineteenth and twentieth-century history was her field of interest. She had intimate knowledge of the rabbinic personalities of yesteryear and of their contemporary successors. Observation of recurring fractiousness and dissension within the leadership of the observant community caused her great pain. However, she recognized the sagacity of the Gemara’s adage “Mila be-sela mashtuka bi-trayn – if a word is worth one sela, silence is worth two” (Megilla 18a) and understood when to voice an opinion and, more significantly, when to remain silent. 

The overriding importance placed by Rav Hutner on the Rebbe-talmid dynamic is legendary. His daughter, too, sought to establish strong relationships with her students and knew how to forge and nurture such bonds. Of her many and varied talents, I often thought that the most striking was her intuitive, almost uncanny, ability to assess character. She recognized and “caught” the subtle nuances of personality, not merely the scholastic, but the emotional and the social as well, the foibles and the hidden abilities, the problems and the potentials. How, I do not know, but somehow she would become aware of the family situation and background of each and every one of her students. 

In the early years, when she was still teaching in New York, I was astonished at how thoroughly she knew her students. In later years, when decades of alumnae numbered literally in the thousands, I marveled at her detailed knowledge, memory and recall of every single student. It was only rarely that, responding to a query concerning a graduate of long-gone days, she would reply but then add “Let me also check the record.” Bearing in mind the fact that in a yeshiva milieu a young student generally spends years under the tutelage of a Rosh Yeshiva, and that by contrast the seminary experience does not span even a full year, the extent to which so many young women forged deep, meaningful relationships with her as mentor is astounding. 

Devora ha-Nevia describes herself not as a judge, warrior, or prophet, but as an Em be-Yisra’el, a Mother in Israel (Judges 5:7). Rebbetzin David was not blessed with children. Yet she was assuredly an Em be-Yisra’el. She leaves behind thousands of women whose lives were touched by her presence, students who were influenced by her, some to a lesser degree, some to a greater degree, and more than a few radically transformed, by their encounter with a brilliant woman of true modesty, passionate commitment and profound yir’at Shamayim. 

Mi yiten lanu temurata!

Judith Bleich is a professor of Jewish studies at Touro College and a member of TRADITION’s editorial board.

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