Schechter Logo for Print

The “House of Jacob” at Sinai and in Our Day

Dr. Brenda Bacon
| 13/05/2006
The Holidays
Women & Gender

“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. Thus they 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 of men and women.

However, because of historical and social circumstances that defined women’s role as being in the home and that of men’s in the public sphere, women were largely excluded from formal Torah study until the twentieth century. Throughout most of Jewish history their devotion to the ideal of Torah study took the form of 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 the lack of historical sources we cannot know how these exceptional women viewed their status. Only in the case of one woman, Rayna Batya Berlin (1825?-1876?) do we have information in that regard.

Rayna Batya Berlin grew up in a home and community in which Torah learning was of the highest value. She was the granddaughter of Rabbi Hayyim, the founder of the famed nineteenth century yeshiva in Volozhin, Lithuania, and the wife of Rabbi Naphtali Zevi Judah Berlin (the Neziv), who headed the yeshiva. In a chapter entitled “The Wisdom of Women” in his memoirs Mekor Barukh (Vilna, 1928), her nephew Rabbi Barukh Ha-Levi Epstein, a constant visitor in her home while a student at the yeshiva, describes her as always sitting at a table near the oven in her kitchen, with all her attention focused on the many books open before her. He tells us “she was disturbed and 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 the mistaken interpretation of men. 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 Barukh claimed that since women’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. 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 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 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 is 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 tells us 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 decided whether or not to disqualify a fowl. “Her husband listened to her evaluation and queried her, and finally granted her the license [ semikha in the original Yiddish, BB] 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, “.his [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.” (David Assaf, Journey to a Nineteenth Century Shtetl: the Memoirs of Yekhezkel Kotik (Detroit, MI.: Wayne State University Press, 2002), pp. 252-253). 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. Young Barukh 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 kashruth of their fowls and discussing Talmud with the many men who came to see her husband, she allowed his intensive, single-minded Torah study. Her husband recognized her abilities by conferring upon her “semikha,” albeit in the limited area of kashrut. Noteworthy is the fact that at the beginning of the twentieth 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 “semikha,” 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 take for granted today, of the availability of Torah study, and of education in general, 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 role in the area of the interpretation of Torah, and not only the study of Torah, is the next frontier.

Dr Brenda Bacon heads the M.A. track in Jewish education at the Schechter Institute of Jewish studies. She is currently teaching a course on feminism and education. Her article ” Rayna Batya Berlin ” is being published in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, eds. Paula E. Hyman and Dalia Ofer, Jerusalem: 2006

Join our mailing list

Sign up to our newsletter for the newest articles, events and updates.

    * We hate spam too! And will never share or sell your email or contact information with anyone

    Skip to content