The House of Jacob: at Sinai and now

The role of women in Torah study is catching up with the Torah's original intentions.

woman with torah 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
woman with torah 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel." (Exodus 19:3) This verse precedes the description of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The sages, in their commentary on the verse, explain that the "House of Jacob" refers to the women, while the phrase "Children of Israel" refers to the men. They thereby emphasize that the Torah was given to both women and men, to those present at Mount Sinai as well as to all the future generations. However, because of historical and social circumstances that placed women in the home and men in the public sphere, women were largely excluded from formal Torah study until the 20th century. Their devotion to the ideal of Torah study was expressed by their enabling the Torah study of their husbands and sons. The education that most women received was limited to those areas that prepared them to manage their households according to Jewish law. Thus, not only were men's and women's roles clearly defined, but the view that women were not allowed to be taught Torah prevailed in many Jewish communities. Despite this prohibition, in various periods of Jewish history there were exceptional women - usually daughters and wives of learned men - who dedicated themselves to Torah study. Due to a lack of historical sources, we cannot know how these exceptional women viewed their status. Only in the case of one woman, Rayna Batya Berlin (approx. 1825-1876), do we have information in that regard. Berlin grew up in a home and community in which Torah learning was highly valued. She was the granddaughter of Rabbi Haim, the founder of the famed 19th-century yeshiva in Volozhin, Lithuania, and she was married to Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Judah Berlin (the Neziv), who headed the yeshiva. In a chapter entitled "The Wisdom of Women" in his memoirs Mekor Baruch, her nephew Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, a constant visitor in her home, describes her as always sitting at a table near the oven in her kitchen with her attention focused on the many books open before her. He tells us "she was disturbed and pained... by the desecration of women's honor and by their lowly position, inasmuch as it was forbidden to teach them Torah." Rayna Batya was convinced that the lowly position of women in Judaism was not intrinsic to the Torah, but rather caused by men's mistaken interpretation. In a series of conversations she had with her young nephew, she presented opinions based on traditional sources that challenged the traditional view of women's role. HER NEPHEW rejected these opinions, and after giving the matter much thought and searching through many books, he presented to her both a sociological and an essentialist argument - also based on traditional Jewish sources - as the basis for the prohibition of women's Torah study. Young Epstein claimed that since a woman's role was to raise the children, her devotion to Torah study would cause her to neglect her family. In addition, Torah study is as physically demanding as warfare and therefore unsuited to the delicate nature of women, according to Epstein. He describes his aunt's reaction: "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 deep thoughts, 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.' "Afterward, 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 viewed her status as one caused by a decree that she must regretfully accept, she could never come to terms with the ideology presented by her nephew. She continued to view the status of women in Jewish society as one of misery, disgrace and injustice, and her young nephew could not convince her that this status was indeed in the best interests of society. The unhappy fate of Rayna Batya Berlin stands in sharp contrast to the experience of her cousin Rivka Hina, who was also the granddaughter of R. Haim of Volozhin. Rivka Hina was married to Rabbi Leizer (Eliezer Halevi) of Grodno (d. 1853). In his memoirs, her grandson Yehezkel Kotik writes that Rabbi Leizer, who inherited a large library of books, spent his days locked inside his study studying Torah. His wife would pass the questions of the townswomen to her husband through the door. Rivka Hina became proficient in handling questions about kashrut, and usually she was the one who decided whether or not to disqualify a fowl. "Her husband listened to her evaluation and queried her, and finally granted her the license [smicha] to handle the easier kinds of questions. She also knew well how to study a page of Talmud, for which people greatly respected her and even considered her a true scholar." Kotik also relates that Rabbi Leizer's "house was constantly filled with the hubbub of rabbis and lomdim. The scholars of Grodno also liked to discuss passages from the Torah with the rebbezin, as it wasn't always easy to get to Leizer himself. She had a keen, scholarly mind, and only when she came up against a really tricky question would she consult her husband, when no one was around." Thus, Rivka Hina's Torah learning was completely accepted by the men in her community, and even admired. ALL WE know about these two exceptional women, Rayna Batya and Rivka Hina, is filtered through the lenses of the men who described them. Through these lenses we learn that Rayna Batya presented a threat to her nephew by challenging the traditional gender roles in Judaism. Her nephew devoted much time during his first year in the yeshiva, an all-male environment, dealing with the challenge his aunt presented. Epstein could allow the reality of exceptional women, but he could not agree to women's devotion to Torah study as a norm in his society, nor would he accept an interpretation of the sources that supported his aunt's views. Although Rivka Hina fit into the rubric of the exceptional woman, her learning served an additional enabling function in her household. It was valued by her husband, for by answering the questions of the women about the kashrut of their fowls and discussing Talmud with the many men who came to see her husband, she enabled his intensive, single-minded Torah study. Her husband recognized her abilities by conferring smicha upon her, albeit in the limited area of kashrut. A noteworthy point is that at the beginning of the 20th century, before the ordination of women became a matter of discussion in any of the denominations of Judaism, Kotik did not hesitate to use the term "smicha," which has the connotation of rabbinic ordination, to describe his grandmother's standing. The lives of Rayna Batya Berlin and of Rivka Hina seem far removed from the lives of women today. However, they serve to remind us that what we now take for granted - the availability of Torah study and education to both girls and boys, women and men - is the product of a struggle that took place over a long period of time. Although the Sages expressed a sense of inclusion in their interpretation that the Torah was given to both men and women, only a change in societal norms allowed for women to be truly included in the community of those who study Torah. The struggle for equality is not over, and the expansion of women's roles in both the interpretation of Torah and the study of Torah is the next frontier.q Dr. Brenda Bacon is a senior lecturer in Jewish education at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. She co-edited the recently published Jewish Education - for What? and Other Essays, by Prof. Walter Ackerman, which was the subject of an academic conference held on June 3 at the Schechter Institute.