Ladies of Letters
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Ladies of Letters*

I suppose that as long as society requires people to submit letters for various purposes—applications, resumés, recommendations, business correspondence, requests for money or avowals of love—there will exist a market for expert guides to elegant letter-writing; including templates or sample letters. This was especially true in societies where “proper” correspondence was not written in the vernacular language, but in a special literary tongue. For pre-modern Jews this required considerable skill and erudition in Hebrew. This was not limited to mastery of grammar and vocabulary, but in keeping with the accepted conventions, it demanded an erudition that enabled frequent quotes and allusions to passages from the Bible, Talmud and Midrash.

One such collection of writing samples was published in 1533 by Rabbi Samuel Archivolti of Padua (c. 1530–1611) under the title Ma‘ayan Gannim [“Fountain of Gardens”]. This work was no mere utilitarian assortment of sample correspondence, but included some very specific content. It provided not only the texts of the letters, but also of replies to them. This would seem to imply that both parties to the correspondence were expected to be making use of Rabbi Archivolti’s manual; or perhaps, that at least some of the letters in the volume were records of exchanges that had actually taken place. It is also quite possible that the author was merely employing the epistolary format as a fictitious literary device for conveying his personal views.

The fifth and last section of the book was devoted to correspondence between men and women. And one pair of letters there takes the form of a request that was directed by a lady named Dinah to a knowledgeable man, asking him for for advice concerning her pursuit of advanced religious studies. In the flowery Hebrew typical of the era, the lady describes her desire to fulfill this supreme Jewish religious goal, although she is cognizant of the obstacles placed in her way by traditional religious law.

The reply relates seriously to her dilemma. The advisor is impressed with her intellectual qualifications and the purity of her motives; but he cannot ignore the rulings of all those major halakhic authorities who upheld the strict position of Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud, that “if a man instructs his daughter in Torah, it is as if he were teaching her “tiflut”—a Hebrew term that has been given a broad range of translations from ”frivolity” to “lewdness.” The correspondent is deeply aware of the frustrating contrast between the woman’s indisputable worthiness and the talmudic law’s abstruseness. In the end, he suggests that the prohibition was directed only at fathers teaching Torah to young girls who would treat the material flippantly, but not to responsible, mature ladies who are capable of coping seriously with the rabbinic curriculum.

Rabbi Archivolti’s very specialized manual did not enjoy very wide circulation outside of Italy; and yet after centuries of virtual oblivion, it came to attract a renewed interest in the nineteenth century—this, at least was true for those two letters dealing with women’s education.

The best-known instance was in the popular Bible commentary “Torah Temimah” by Baruch Epstein of Lithuania. After citing the standard rabbinic rulings that the Torah’s instruction to “teach them to your sons” is meant to actively exclude daughters from Torah learning, the Torah Temimah brings Rabbi Archivolti’s ingeniously permissive interpretation. Interestingly, he cites it as a “responsum”—a formal legal ruling— without mentioning that it really originated in a letter-writing manual that carried no legal authority, even though it was written by a respected scholar. In fact, Epstein commented that he was really unfamiliar with that rare and obscure book or its author other than to note that Rabbi Archivolti had been cited as a grammarian in Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller’s influential commentary to the Mishnah.

All this is quite surprising, to say the least. Rabbi Epstein mentioned the same passage from Ma‘ayan Gannim in one of the most memorable chapters in his autobiographical memoir, Mekor Barukh. The chapter tells of his encounters with his remarkable aunt Rayna Batya Berlin, scion of a distinguished rabbinic dynasty and wife of rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (known by his acronym the “Netziv”) who stood at the helm of the prestigious Volozhin Yeshiva in Lithuania in the nineteenth century.

As a student in his teens, Epstein spent much time in his uncle’s home, and his memoir describes Rayna Batya as a well educated lady immersed in tomes of religious scholarship and in general culture (and correspondingly inept in the kitchen). In their frequent conversations on scholarly matters, she took a particular interest in the sources that defined women’s roles in rabbinic law and culture, and was very displeased with those roles (which were inferior to those allowed to biblical women). As she stated bitterly, the most ignorant male could bless God for “not making me a woman,” to which intelligent, pious woman are obliged to respond “Amen.” In their last conversation, his aunt lamented that Jewish women are oppressed and disgraced, but there was no apparent alternative to accepting their regrettable lot in life. (Not unexpectedly, this episode has been heavily bowdlerized in the English version of Rabbi Epstein’s memoir issued by an Orthodox publisher, in order to harmonize it with the prevalent atmosphere of fundamentalism.)

Epstein wrote that in one of those conversations, Rayna Batya Berlin cited the letter from Archivolti’s Ma‘ayan Gannim with its suggested solution to the prohibition of women’s Torah study; and Epstein relates that he tried to refute her by pointing out that the book was not an actual halakhic work. And yet this, we might recall, was the very same work that he would cite later on in his Torah commentary as a halakhic “responsum,” albeit an obscure one with which he was not familiar.

At any rate it is now undeniably clear that neither the Rebitzen Berlin nor Baruch Epstein had access to the original text of Rabbi Archivolti’s work; and that Epstein was citing an excerpt that had appeared in the September 25 1895 issue of the Hebrew daily “Hazefirah” where the unnamed editor had introduced it as “a letter worthy of publication on account of the position it takes regarding the education of women.” This was much later than the alleged conversation with his aunt that Epstein described in his memoir.

Based on this and other evidence, recent scholarship has generally been quite dismissive about the historical veracity of the story, and has concluded that—though the basic description of Mrs. Berlin’s personality is probably quite credible—Epstein took extensive literary license in his narrative depiction.

Whatever doubts might arise with respect to the authenticity of Epstein’s use of the Ma‘ayan Gannim letter, it did have the result of introducing an otherwise forgotten source into the contemporary discourse about the schooling of women in Jewish traditionalist circles.

Truly, when we observe the many excellent educational institutions that have been proliferating in recent decades offering intense programs in Torah study for religious women, we are reminded of the visionary words of our sixteenth-century Italian author who wrote:

Those women who are strongly motivated to approach this divine labour as a free and virtuous choice. They will ascend the mountain of the Lord and they will dwell in his holy place, for they are exemplary women. It is therefore fitting that the sages of their generation should praise them, encourage them, inspire them, direct them, strengthen their hands and fortify their arms.

And turning to his correspondent, the aspiring scholar Dinah, he urges (and we are tempted to join in): “Do it and succeed—and you will receive assistance from Heaven!”

This article and many others are now included in the book

Preachers, Teachers and Selected Short Features
Preachers, Teachers and Selected Short Features

published by

Alberta Judaic Library
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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, September 9, 2016, p. 16.
  • For further reading:
    • Adler, Eliyana R. “Reading Rayna Batya: The Rebellious Rebbetzin as Self-Reflection.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, no. 16 (2008): 130–52. doi:10.2979/nas.2008.-.16.130.
    • Assaf, Simcha. Meḳorot le-Toldhot ha-Ḥinukh be-Yiśraʼel. Edited by Shmuel Glick. Revised and Expanded edition. Vol. 2. 6 vols. New York and Jerusalem: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2001.
    • Bonfil, Robert. Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy. Translated by Anthony Oldcorn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
    • Epstein, Baruch. My Uncle the Netziv. 1st edition. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1988.
    • Fuchs, Ilan. Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Religious Education and Modernity. Routledge Jewish Studies Series. London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.
    • ———. “Talmud Torah le-Nashim be-’Iṭalia bImei ha-Beinayim U-Vreshit Ha ’Et Ha-Ḥadashah: Sheloshah Diyyunim Hilkhatiyyim.” Massehet 8 (2009): 29–49. [Hebrew]
    • Moseley, Marcus. Being for Myself Alone: Origins of Jewish Autobiography. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2006.
    • Dan Rabinowitz, “Rayna Batya and Other Learned Women: A Reevaluation of Rabbi Barukh Halevi Epstein’s Sources,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 35, no. 1 (2001): 55–69.
    • Schwartz, Dror. “R. Samuel Archivolti: His Life, Writings, Responsa and Letters.” Asufot: Annual for Jewish Studies 7 (1993): 69–156.
    • Seeman, Don. “The Silence of Rayna Batya: Torah, Suffering, and Rabbi Barukh Epstein’s ‘Wisdom of Women.’” The Torah U-Madda Journal 6 (1995): 91–128.
    • Shapiro, Marc B. Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History. Oxford and Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2015.
    • ———. “Clarifications of Previous Posts” Blog. The Seforim Blog, January 16, 2008.
    • Zinberg, Israel. Italian Jewry in the Renaissance Era. Translated by Bernard Martin. A History of Jewish Literature. Cincinnati and New York: Hebrew Union College Press and KTAV, 1988.