Ok, so that's not what the great Judy Hauptman was really saying in the fascinating talk she gave at NYU yesterday (although if the tabloid New York Daily News was covering it, that might have been the headline). What she was sharing was some of the intimate details from daily life in ancient times that she was has been uncovering as part of a new project to create a feminist commentary on the Talmud (an effort, believe it or not, that is being largely funded by the German government and is being led by professor Tal Ilan at the Free University in Berlin).
Hauptman's main points were about what was happening in the ancient kitchen. The evidence indicates, she says, that women were in charge there, not only doing the cooking, but also making sure that Jewish law was being followed, even on Passover, the Jewish holiday that, with its ban on eating leavened products, is the very most demanding when it comes to laws of food. "The women were baking the matzah," Hauptman said.
That is not to say that she thinks the ancient world was some kind of feminist paradise. Men were still very much in charge. "The men produce the laws," she said. "But the women are [in charge] in the kitchen." This implies that women knew quite a bit about halakha (Jewish law) even if they didn't learn it in the Beit Midrash (study halls), she said.
This view that many women knew halakha well extends also to how Hauptman understands the role of Beruriah, one of the most famous women in the Talmud and a figure who some think represented a most unusual thing in the ancient world of the rabbis -- a woman who was a great scholar. But Hauptman does not think Beruriah was such an anomaly. "I think she was like many other women who knew halakha [but] she's not a scholar."
That is, Hauptman thinks, Beruriah may have made it into the text of the Talmud because she was indeed exceptional among women in terms of her knowledge of halakha. But that does not mean she studied it alongside men in the Beit Midrash.
So, how did bikini waxing come into this? Hauptman was talking about the rabbinic discussion of whether תכשיטי נשים -- literally, women's ornaments (or jewelry) -- can be used on Passover. The common understanding of this term is that it refers to paste jewelry -- jewelry made of water and flour. But Hauptman says it also might refer to flour paste used as a depilatory (for the removal of hair).
It was really a treat to see how excited Hauptman -- a person who has been studying Talmud for so many years -- was about her new studies as part of the feminist Talmud commentary project. "I'm learning new things about women in the Talmud," she said. "There's so much I did not know."
PS The main Talmud text she brought about Beruriah is from Pesachim 62b.
' שמלאי אתא לקמיה דרבי יוחנן א"ל ניתני לי מר ספר יוחסין א"ל מהיכן את א"ל מלוד והיכן מותבך בנהרדעא א"ל אין נידונין לא ללודים ולא לנהרדעים וכל שכן דאת מלוד ומותבך בנהרדעא כפייה וארצי א"ל ניתנייה בג' ירחי שקל קלא פתק ביה א"ל ומה ברוריה דביתהו דר"מ ברתיה דר"ח בן תרדיון דתניא תלת מאה שמעתתא ביומא מג' מאה רבוותא ואפ"ה לא יצתה ידי חובתה בתלת שנין ואת אמרת בתלתא ירחי כי שקיל ואזיל א"ל רבי מה בין לשמו ושלא לשמו לאוכליו ושלא לאוכליו א"ל הואיל וצורבא מרבנן את תא ואימא לך