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This paper seeks to examine the life and contemporary afterlife of the nineteenth-century Rebbetzin Rayna Batya Berlin. Although there are no surviving writings by Berlin, and only one extant source written about her by any of her peers, she has recently become a touchstone for discussions of Jewish women and Torah scholarship. According to the memoir of her nephew, Barukh Epstein, Rebbetzin Berlin was not only learned, but also consumed with questions regarding women's role in traditional Judaism. A juxtaposition of verifiable facts about Berlin, and analysis of the major source about her, with examples of recent academic treatments of her will show that while at times acknowledging the problematic nature of the sources, contemporary academics have nonetheless co-opted the Rebbetzin as an exemplar of their own divergent points of view. While this is an attractive and useful proposition, the historical Rayna Batya Berlin remains beyond our grasp.
Such was her way, to sit always near the winter oven that was in her kitchen (even during the summer) with all sorts of books spread before her on the table: Bible, Mishnah, Ein-Yaakov, various midrashim, Menorat hamaor, Kav hayashar, Tzemah David, Shevet Yehudah, and many other books of this nature, as well as volumes of Aggadah. All of her focus and concentration ... [was] in the books--her hand hardly moved from them! But of all that concerned the maintenance of the household, she knew little, almost nothing. (1)
So does Barukh Epstein, author the memoir in which this quote appears, describe his learned aunt Rebbetzin Rayna Batya Berlin, wife of Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva and one of the foremost talmudists and rabbinic leaders of the nineteenth century. According to Epstein, Rayna Batya not only spent her time immersed in sacred Jewish books, but also used these rabbinic texts to make sense of her own anomalous position as a learned Jewish woman in late nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. Ever since the contemporary rediscovery of Berlin in the past decade and a half, scholars have been fascinated by this extraordinary woman, and have sought to describe and understand her particular rebellion. Here was a woman intimately connected to the greatest Torah sages of her age, and yet not only marginal to them, but seemingly aware of her marginality.
Rebbetzin Rayna Batya Berlin is just one example of a historical figure who has been adopted by contemporary academics and laypeople and, I will argue, adapted to meet contemporary needs. She has thus entered the lists along with other Jewish women of the past whose stories are used to make claims about women and Judaism today. Among the best known are Beruriah, Glueckel of Hameln, the Maiden of Ludmir and Sarah Schenerir.
Beruriah, the legendary learned wife of the second-century talmudic sage Rabbi Meir, has been used both as a symbol of the potential for women's leadership in Judaism, and, because of intimations that she ultimately came to grief, as a cautionary tale of the limits of that potential. (2) The memoirs of the seventeenth-century widow and merchant Glueckel of Hameln are amongst the most popular of historical sources and, Robert Liberles has recently suggested, among the most overused and misunderstood as well. (3) Whereas earlier treatments reached contradictory conclusions, Nathaniel Deutsch's exhaustive work on the enigmatic hasidic figure known as the Maiden of Ludmir ultimately seems to tell us as much about ourselves as about its subject. (4) Sarah Schenirer, founder in post-World War I Poland of the first Bais Yaakov school, has, interestingly, become both the ultimate example of a pious "daughter of Israel" and a model for Jewish feminists. (5) The list could go on. (6) As readers and writers answering to the canons of scholarship, we are well aware of the ways in which different historiographic genres produced outside the academy, such as rabbinic hagiography or Orthodox historiography, can reshape and even homogenize important personages. (7) But we are far less attuned to our own leanings in this direction, and how these are perpetuated in popular culture.
In this paper I will explore the actual, surviving, extant sources on Rayna Batya Berlin, and how they have been read by contemporary scholars. I will demonstrate that the instability, constructed nature and questionable accuracy of the major source on Berlin have largely been ignored. Scholars writing in the fields of rabbinics, anthropology, education, literature, history and feminist theory have nonetheless appropriated Berlin as proof of a variety of views.
The Rebbetzin Herself
Rayna Batya, second daughter of Reb Itzele (Rabbi Itzhak ben Hayim of Volozhin, d. 1849), the second head of the celebrated Volozhin Yeshiva, was born around the year 1817. In 1831 she married Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1817-1893), later known by his acronym as the Natziv, who would himself serve as the final rosh yeshiva in Volozhin. The Berlins had four children. Their surviving son became a rabbi, and both of their daughters married rabbis. (8) Rebbetzin Berlin died around the year 1878. (9)
Throughout the nineteenth century, the Volozhin Yeshiva, founded by Rayna Batya's grandfather, Reb Hayim (Rabbi Hayim ben Itzhak of Volozhin, 1749-1821), was viewed as the ideal representation of the Lithuanian Jewish scholarly community. Reb Hayim, a disciple of the Vilna Gaon, founded the yeshiva not long after the spread of the hasidic movement had forced the Lithuanian rabbinate to articulate its philosophy. His major work, Nefesh hahayim, is a paean to the importance of Torah scholarship in Jewish life. But beyond just writing, Reb Hayim put his words into practice in founding what has been called the first modern yeshiva.
Unlike its predecessors, the Volozhin Yeshiva offered students full-service, full-time learning. Students were provided with the means to meet their physical needs so that they could devote themselves entirely to study. Later, other yeshivas would follow this example, but Volozhin remained the exemplar and scholarly pinnacle. Many of the best minds of the generation passed through its doors, and even when they did not remain within the religious fold, they remembered their years there as intense and transformative. Indeed, Volozhin is a recurrent trope in the memoir literature of the period written from both within the orthodox camp and outside of it. (10)
Rebbetzin Berlin is scarcely mentioned in any of the biographical or reference works about her father, grandfather or husband. (11) Nonetheless, given the prominence of her family, certain facts might safely be assumed. Berlin certainly had more access to education than most Jewish girls in early nineteenth-century Russia. As well as his exhaustive knowledge of Judaism's Written and Oral Laws, her father was said to have known several European languages. (12) However, there is no record of how Berlin herself learned to read Hebrew. (13)
Rabbi Meir (Berlin) Bar-Ilan (1880-1949), the Natziv's son by his second marriage, recorded a few stories about the women in his family in his memoir, From volozhin to Jerusalem. Reb Hayim's wife was said to have taken great pride in her learning. (14) Bar-Ilan also included a description of life in Volozhin in the following generation:
Rabbi Itzele's daughters, as well as his grandchildren, were real intellectuals [kop-menshen]. They had full proficiency in Jewish as well as secular subjects, were attractive to look upon, had sharp minds and were well spoken. The women from the rabbi's home took their places not due to their husbands, but on their own [merit]. (15)
Bar-Ilan goes on to narrate two stories about these women. In the first, he relates how Rayna Batya's older sister continued to hold classes in her home after the death of her husband. The second story is a typical anti-hasidic tale, the only twist being that it is a woman who gets the best of a group of Hasidim. Bar-Ilan does not mention which of the two daughters was the heroine. (16) In any case, all of the stories were told to Bar-Ilan long after the death of the subjects. Such stories provide a general sense of how these women were viewed and remembered, rather than facts about their lives.
Rayna Batya spent her entire life in Volozhin, intimately connected to the Torah luminaries of the generation and surrounded by intellectual ferment. It is not hard to imagine that anyone raised in such circumstances would exhibit interest in the life of the mind and the spirit. However, unlike many of the men and boys who passed through, she did not leave a memoir of her undoubtedly interesting life. The scholar is thus left to examine other sources.
"Barukh's Source": Mekor Barukh
Barukh Halevi Epstein is best known in the Jewish world for his Torah temimah, a compendium of …