Rayna Batya Berlin
Born into a family of distinguished lineage, whose members were the intellectual and spiritual leaders of Lithuanian Jewry, Rayna Batya Berlin, like the men in her family, viewed Torah study as the loftiest means of worship of God. The granddaughter of Rabbi Hayyim b. Isaac Volozhiner (1749–1821), founder of the pioneering yeshiva of Volozhin, Lithuania, the daughter of Rabbi Isaac b. Hayyim Volozhiner (d. 1849), famed successor as head of the yeshiva, and wife of the Neziv, Rabbi Naphtali Zevi Judah Berlin (1817–1893), who also headed the yeshiva, she was anguished and angry at the exclusion of women from this important domain of religious activity.
All we know about Rayna Batya is based on the chapter “The Wisdom of Women” in Mekor Barukh (1928), the monumental autobiographical work of her nephew Rabbi Barukh Ha-Levi Epstein (1862–1942), who as a student in the Volozhin yeshiva was a constant visitor at his aunt and uncle’s house. Approximately forty years later he described her thus:
More than once I heard her complain and bemoan, in sorrow and pain, in bitter mood and with bitter soul, of the pain of the bitter fate and narrow portion of women in this life, because the fulfillment of positive, time-bound commandments such as tefillin, zitzit, sukkah and lulav, and much, much more, had been denied them. … She was disturbed and pained even more by the desecration of women’s honor and by their lowly position, inasmuch as it was forbidden to teach them Torah.
Although Ashkenazi women voluntarily fulfilled many of these commandments, from which they were legally exempt, their actions were viewed as less significant than those of men, since Jewish tradition views obligated actions as more meritorious than voluntary ones. Nevertheless, Rayna Batya herself was learned and spent her days in learning:
It was her habit to sit always near the winter oven that was in the kitchen (even during the summer) with all sorts of books spread before her on the table: Bible, Mishnayot, Ein Ya’akov, various midrashim, Menorat ha-Maor, Kav ha-Yashar, Zemah David, Shevet Yehudah, and many other books of this nature, as well as volumes of Aggadah. All of her focus and concentration were on the books—her hand hardly moved from them. But of all that concerned the maintenance of the household, she knew little, almost nothing.
It is significant that the Talmud was not on her table, and it seems that when Rayna Batya protested against the prohibition of teaching women Torah she was referring to Oral Law, which consists of Mishnah and Talmud and their commentaries. It was not rare for women in her time to know Bible and midrash, which they may have learnt in Yiddish translation by reading the Ze’enah U-re’enah. However, she herself seems to have been conversant with the Talmud.
Barukh also describes his aunt as “weak and nervous.” Were her emotional condition and her lack of ability to manage her household a result of her frustration at being a “proper, smart, modest and exceptionally learned woman, like one of the whole men,” who could not fulfill her spiritual aspirations in the society in which she lived? We can only guess at the answer.
Rayna Batya felt humiliated not only by her exemption from time-bound commandments, but also by the blessing “who has not made me a woman.”
How bitter was my aunt’s soul, as she would say from time to time that every empty-headed, ignorant, vulgar and worthless man, for whom even the meaning of the words is almost foreign to him, and who at any time would not dare to pass the threshold of her house without asking permission with utmost gravity—despite this, this very person would not be bothered at reciting in her ears with great pride the blessing “who has not made me a woman”! And more than this, it is God’s instruction that it is her obligation to answer “amen” after it; and who has the strength to endure this stamp of disgrace and eternal insult to women?
Rabbi Epstein recounts a series of conversations he had with his aunt, in which she challenged the status of women by presenting opinions from within the tradition which justified her desire to study Torah and strengthened her conviction that the prohibition was man-made and not mandated by God. Although in the first conversation she bested him in argument by showing that he was not quoting from the proper source, in the later conversations he remained firm in his convictions as to proper gender roles in Judaism, sparking a great deal of rage in his aunt. Young Barukh refused to give legitimacy to the sources his aunt showed him and interpreted them in accordance with his own understanding. For example, Rayna Batya cited a sixteenth-century rabbinic opinion that encourages Torah study by women. Her nephew rejected her reading of these sources and interpreted them differently.
The last words we have of Rayna Batya on this topic are in response to the coherent ideology her nephew presented, based on the Torah and on rabbinic sources, as to the prohibition of women’s Torah study. His claims are both of an essentialist and sociological nature: Study of Torah is not suited to the feminine nature because the effort and devotion it demands are equal to those demanded of a man in warfare. In addition, if women studied Torah as well as men, the family would disintegrate, for who would raise the children?
He describes his aunt’s response as follows:
When I had expounded these words before my aunt, she reflected a great deal, and seemed to consider all the things that I had said. … After many thoughts and deep ones, she said to me: “What can be done? Yes, yes, thus it is: Turn to the right, turn to the left; in the end it is for us miserable and disgraced women to bow our heads beneath our evil fortune. Righteous are You, God, in all that has been decreed concerning us. Your Torah is certainly true and Your laws are a deep abyss; there is no speech nor are there words. Blessed are You who created me according to Your will.” Afterwards, she turned to me and said, “Just as everything has an end and limit, so let there come an end and limit to this painful matter.” From that time on, she never again spoke on this subject.
Although Rayna Batya despaired of finding a positive response to her wish to have a status equal to men, she could not repress her feelings of being disgraced and oppressed. Being loyal to the tradition, her only response was a suffering silence.
In ultra-Orthodox historiography, Rayna Batya’s anger and desperation have been censored so as not to provide a precedent for present-day feminist complaints. For example, in the conversations between young Barukh and Rayna Batya, presented in the book My Uncle the Neziv, a biography of Rabbi Naphtali Zevi Judah Berlin which is part of the ArtScroll history series, Rayna Batya’s feelings of rage, suffering and humiliation are absent. In addition, the Mishnah on her table has been removed, because the study of the Oral Law has still not become an accepted part of the curriculum of ultra-Orthodox women.
Epstein, Barukh Ha-Levi. Mekor Barukh (Hebrew). Vilna: 1928.
Chapter 46 of the fourth part of Epstein’s autobiography is entitled “The Wisdom of Women” and consists of a description of Rayna Batya Berlin and her conversations with her nephew as Epstein recalls them. These conversations probably took place in Yiddish.
Epstein, Barukh Ha-Levi. My Uncle the Neziv. Brooklyn: 1988.
The chapter “The Wisdom of Women” has been censored to accord with contemporary ultra-Orthodox values.
Seeman, Don. “The Silence of Rayna Batya: Torah, Suffering and Rabbi Barukh Epstein’s ‘Wisdom of Women.’” The Torah U’Madda Journal 6 (1996): 91–128; Kobrin, Rebecca, and Don Seeman.
“‘Like One of the Whole Men’: Learning, Gender and Autobiography in R. Barukh Epstein’s Mekor Barukh.” In Nashim 2 (1999), 52–94.
These two articles present an in-depth analysis of Epstein’s chapter “The Wisdom of Women.” The second article presents the chapter in the context of two additional chapters in which the boundaries of traditional Talmud study are challenged, one by a maskil (“enlightened” Jew) who wants to introduce general studies into the curriculum of the Jewish school, and the other by a gentile, who fails to master Talmud study.
Stampfer, Shaul. “Gender Differentiation and Education of the Jewish Woman in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe,” Polin 7 (1992): 63–87.
This article corrects the misconception that nineteenth-century Jewish women were educated in general studies and ignorant in Jewish studies. While there was no one framework for the education of girls, they did study in a girls’ heder, in a heder with boys, or at home with a tutor. However, their level of education usually did not reach that of the boys.