Remembering Rebbetzin Bruria David

Rebbetzin Bruria David as a young girl with her father Rav Yitzchak Hutner. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/IZAK

“What does this say to you?”

In her quest to encourage her students to truly engage with what they were learning, Rebbetzin Bruria David, a”h, founder of the Beth Jacob Jerusalem seminary (BJJ), asked this question often. In the year since her petirah (passing), her students have been asking themselves this same question: What, exactly, did Rebbetzin David say to us?

Rebbetzin David was an ishah gedolah (great woman) whose stature was instantly discernable, and yet her exact nature is difficult to delineate. She can be described by a host of adjectives that don’t normally dovetail with each other: cerebral and passionate; dignified and warm; uncompromising and understanding. The reach of her chinuch was wide; each year she educated many young women (my year in seminary, twenty-four years ago, there were ninety-nine students; recent years have had 180), and many of these alumnae took on teaching and eventually principal jobs in Bais Yaakov schools, extending her influence to her students’ own students and children. What was the magic of her chinuch?

Rebbetzin David taught Chumash (Sefer Devarim) and a Jewish history course that commenced with the settlement of Jews in Israel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Both classes, while replete with traditional sources, were also vehicles for Rebbetzin David to share her vast array of knowledge and her deeply held hashkafos (worldview). Though she believed that the word of Torah needed no embellishment from the personal charisma of the instructor to make it exciting, her love and passion for the devar Hashem (word of G-d) shone through in her teaching, making each class an electrifying experience. Nothing was as real to her as Torah, and nothing excited her more than sharing that with us.

Her kavod haTorah (esteem for Torah) and fealty to a pure and uncomplicated emunah were rock-solid, and yet Rebbetzin David was not a constrained thinker; she marshalled a wide array of sources to build a Torah class. She would come to class armed with a large envelope of source materials to support her points throughout the lesson. One class might include a quote from her father Rav Yitzchak Hutner’s sefer, the Pachad Yitzchak, an excerpt from a Wall Street Journal article and a passage from a letter from an alumna. The rigor of textual learning was important to her; complexity was a vehicle through which to clarify and refine pure Torah hashkafah.

We were challenged to  think creatively—by no means did she accept rote learning—but creativity was welcomed only insofar as it aligned with a pure Torah outlook. Rebbetzin David urged us constantly to listen to what we were learning and relate to it with heart. “Student mentality,” evinced by wanting to know things only for the test, or insisting on leaving class right when the bell rang, disappointed her. She wanted us to learn passionately, regularly soliciting our responses to what we had learned by having us write petakim (notes), which she would selectively read aloud.

Once, we learned a Rashi in Devarim 30:3 on the words “V’shav Hashem Elokim es shevuscha—And Hashem, your G-d, will bring back your exiles.” Commenting on why the word v’shav, which means He will [Himself] return, is used instead of v’heishiv, which means He will return others, Rashi explains that the procedure of returning Jews from exile to the final redemption will be so difficult that Hashem will, so-to-speak, have to go into the exile and hold our hands to bring us out. Then Rashi comments, “v’af b’galiyos she’ar ha’umos matzinu kain—we find something similar regarding the exiles of other nations.” Rebbetzin David was terribly disappointed when no one stopped to protest. We looked at her, bewildered. Protest what? The Rashi seemed simple enough. She finally told us: is not galus (exile) part of Klal Yisrael’s unique and specific destiny? How could we not be shocked to see Rashi refer to other nations also experiencing galus? We should not have been able to read a Rashi like that without a visceral reaction.

We experienced her admonition as well as the sparkle in her eye, and we felt her love—but she was a woman elevated, separate and ultimately unknown.

Rebbetzin David cultivated havdalah (separation). Knowledge wasn’t enough; discernment was the quality that took it a step further. We were to understand that kodesh was not chol, and this was expressed throughout the year in many examples, large and small. A seudas Shabbos is not “lunch,” Shabbos and Sunday are not two days of the weekend. And while it might be a nice gesture to give food to a teacher the day before or the day after Purim, it’s just a gift—not an actual fulfillment of the mitzvah of mishloach manos. Pay attention, she exhorted us. Don’t take for granted that because something sounds correct, or lots of people do it, it is correct. She once read aloud to us from an ad for a yom tov program, challenging us to identify what was wrong with it. “Luxury accommodations! Twenty-four-hour tea room! Golfing! Chassidishe shechitah! Pony-rides!” We made all manner of suggestions, but none of us hit the nail on the head. Rebbetzin David was upset that we didn’t think to question just what “Chassidishe shechitah” actually meant.

Above all, Rebbetzin David taught about the supremacy of talmud Torah. She wanted us to understand that nothing could compare to the value of pure limud Torah l’shmah (Torah learning for its own sake). Sometimes we pushed back; we didn’t always get it. Rebbetzin David accepted students from a wide variety of backgrounds—she cared much more about a girl’s potential, and primarily about whether she was a true mevakeshes, spiritual seeker. She told us once how disappointed she was that people get excited upon hearing anecdotes about how Rav Moshe Feinstein was kind to the nurse attending him. We were baffled. Slowly we caught on: of course Rebbetzin David thought it was good to be nice to the nurse—but she wanted us to understand that Rav Moshe’s sterling middos weren’t what made him a gadol b’Yisrael—Torah was.

This atmosphere of uncompromising kavod haTorah had a drip-drip effect on us, and by the end of the year, many BJJ graduates wanted to marry talmidei chachamim and invest in their own learning and teaching. I don’t recall Rebbetzin David telling us in class that we should marry bnei Torah, or that we should become teachers. By seeing her personal example, her total embodiment of the ideals she venerated, and being steeped throughout the year in an atmosphere of kavod haTorah, we came to want those things for ourselves.

It wasn’t her brilliance and ability to speak Torah hashkafah that moved me most about Rebbetzin David. Rather, I was struck by Rebbetzin David’s rectitude, refinement and incredible personal dignity, which went far beyond any of the boundaries of tzeniusthat I have ever seen. She rarely used personal pronouns, referring to her illustrious father Rav Hutner as “the Rosh Yeshivah.” While she annually marked her family’s release from captivity following the September 1970 hijacking of TWA flight 741 with a shiur on Pachad Yitzchak, rarely, as far as I can recall, did she refer overtly to her personal life. She accorded that respect to her students—if you called her years after seminary, she was likely to remember exactly what you had been up to when you last spoke, and ask you about it with care and concern—but she would never pry, and was extremely sparing with advice.

Rebbetzin David’s overpowering intellect, uncompromising stance in matters of kavod haTorah, and reticence about her personal life could inspire a feeling of awe and distance, but they concealed a warm heart that beat with reverence for Torah and love for all of Klal Yisrael. She had a huge pool of applicants each year, but this did not make her proud—she spoke to us, upon her return to Eretz Yisrael after interviews, of how painful it was to hear disappointed people speak critically about the application process, which she regarded as dinei nefashos. She loved her students and expected personal greatness from them because she respected and believed in them, and she was immensely proud of how their influence reverberated throughout the Torah world.

When describing the qualities of the Mashiach in Yeshayahu 11:5, the Malbim comments on the difference between attributes that are visible to others and those that are hidden. He notes that faith is a hidden quality, and he observes “Ki zeh tenai hama’amin hashalem sheyihiyeh mitzpono yotair al nigleiho—this is the trait of the true believer, that what is hidden about him should be greater than what is revealed.” To me, Rebbetzin David embodied this trait. She spent so much time with others and shared so much of her values and her beliefs, and yet revealed so little about herself. While hundreds who knew Rebbetzin David  came forward with vignettes, quotes, lessons and remembrances after her petirah, I found that these revelations further underscore her depth and highlight her essential hiddenness. We saw her brilliance, her fire, her personification of ga’avah de’kedusha; we experienced her admonition as well as the sparkle in her eye, and we felt her love—but she was a woman elevated, separate and ultimately unknown. To be and do all this, to touch and inspire thousands without a hint of compromise to her personal integrity, is the tremendous mystery of Rebbetzin David. Tehi zichra baruch, may her memory be a blessing.


Sara Wiederblank teaches Chumash and Navi at Bais Yaakov Machon Ora. She is a frequent contributor to Binah Magazine and has published two books for children and seven books for adults that highlight the everyday lives of frum women. She lives with her family in Passaic, New Jersey.

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