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Berlin, Rayna Batya


BERLIN, RAYNA BATYA (c. 1817–c. 1875), learned East European woman remembered for her concern with the status of women in traditional Judaism. Berlin lived her entire life in the orbit of the Volozhin Yeshivah. Her grandfather, R. Ḥayyim *Volozhiner, founded the yeshivah, and her father, R. Isaac *Volozhiner, would later take over. In 1831 Rayna Batya married R. Naphtali Ẓevi Judah Berlin (Neẓiv), a promising student who became leader of the yeshivah in 1854. The couple had four children, R. Hayyim, who married Rivka Zeitlin and was a rabbi in Moscow and later in Jerusalem, Michael, who died in his youth, and Sarah Resha and Dreyzl, who were married consecutively to R. Raphael Shapira.

In this environment of intense engagement with Jewish texts, where knowledge of Torah was honored above all else, it is not surprising that some of the women in the family would also take an interest in Jewish study and knowledge. Family stories about Berlin's grandmother, as well as Berlin and her sister, describe sharp-witted and sharp-tongued women committed to upholding the rabbinic world view. By far the most complete picture of Berlin comes from the memoirs of her nephew, R. Barukh ha-Levi Epstein. Epstein, whose mother was the Neẓiv's sister, spent the middle years of the 1870s as a student at the Volozhin Yeshivah. During these years he was also a frequent visitor at the home of his uncle and aunt. In a volume of his memoirs devoted to R. Naftali Ẓevi Judah Berlin, Epstein included one chapter on his aunt, entitled, "Wisdom of Women." The portrait of Rayna Batya Berlin produced by Epstein is of an unusually learned Jewish woman, frustrated by the limits imposed on her by gender and Jewish law. According to Epstein, Berlin spent her days sitting in her kitchen surrounded by Jewish texts including volumes of the Mishnah and aggadah as well as historical and other works. On his visits, she would frequently engage him in discussions about women in Jewish law, especially with regard to the study of the Torah. In recent years a number of scholars have taken an interest in Rayna Batya Berlin and her anomalous position in Orthodox Judaism.


M. Bar-Ilan, Fun Volozhin biz Yerushalayim (1933); idem, Raban shel Yisrael (1943); B. Epstein, Mekor Barukh (1954); D. Seeman, "The Silence of Rayna Batya: Torah, Suffering, and Rabbi Barukh Epstein's 'Wisdom of Women,'" in: Torah U-Madda Journal, 6 (1995–96); D. Seeman and R. Kobrin, " 'Like One of the Whole Men': Learning, Gender and Autobiography in R. Barukh Epstein's Mekor Barukh," in: Nashim, 5 (1999); S. Zolty, 'And All Your Children Shall be Learned': Women and the Study of Torah in Jewish Law and History (1993).

[Eliyana R. Adler (2nd ed.)]

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