Okay, so maybe he wasn’t really a feminist. But if one reads his memoirs one will see that Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein was clearly ahead of his time.
Rav Epstein is one of the giants of his generation. He was truly a Gadol. Of course so was his father, the author of the Aruch HaShulchan Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein. Greatness apparently ran in his family.
His written works express a genius that few others of his time had. All this was accomplished despite his entry into the working class. He was by profession a banker for a large portion of his life. But he never lost his passion for learning Torah. His level of Bekiyus - the vast knowledge of the Talmud is demonstrated in his work Torah Temimah where he cites all quotes of the Pesukim in the Gemarah and Midrashim.
His uncle was the famed Rosh HaYeshiva of Volozhin Rav Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, The Netziv. He wrote a memoir entitled The Makor Baruch wherein he describes some very fond memories of that time he spent in Volozhin. A portion of that book was faithfully translated into English by Rav Moshe Dombey in a book called My Uncle the Netziv.
This is one of the few publications in the 'ArtScroll History Series' that was not hagiography. That caused that book to be ‘banned in Lakewood’. It was originally distributed in a fund raising project for one of the day schools there and was immediately recalled when they became apprised of its contents. Too much truth. They could not handle it. Certain of that truth was contrary to their Hashkafos.
I won't comment on the ban other than to paraphrase what Rav Ahron Soloveichik told me personally about it. He angrily said that those who banned this book don't come to the toenails of Rav Baruch.
One of those truths that they didn't like might be the following. In a chapter entitled, The Wisdom of Women he speaks of the Netziv’s first wife Rebbetzin Rayna Batya, the granddaughter of R’ Chaim Volozhiner. He depicts her as a brilliant scholar of Jewish learning and he developed a very close relationship with her. She helped develop Rav Baruch’s own learning habits.
He relates a story where when he debated her once and quoted a Yerushalmi without mentioning that it was from the Ran’s commentary on Mesches Shabbos. She called him on it, saying that he lacked intellectual honesty for not mentioning that he saw it in the Ran.
The Rebbitzin was much more interested in Torah scholarship than she was in domesticity. She was fond of citing examples from history of scholarly women. Just to mention two of the more famous ones: Rav Meir’s wife, Beruria who brought down a Chidush in Mesehes Keilm and was thanked for it by Chazal… and Rav Nachman’s wife, Yalta who disagreed with her father Rav Chanina Ben Tradiyon and the sages sided with her.
In discussing with her the matter of Chazal’s discouragement of fathers teaching of Torah to their daughters - she gave R’ Baruch a tremendous insight, from a rare Sefer dating back to the 14th century entitled Mayaan Ganim. Therein it explains that Chazal meant to discourage teaching Torah to a girl too young and therefore too immature to handle it properly. And that to the contrary, women who are mature enough and highly motivated should actually be encouraged by the Gedolei HaDor to learn Torah!
There are many other fascinating insights on this subject to be found in this chapter as there are insights about other subjects throughout the book. I recommend it.
What I found fascinating is Rav Baruch’s own attitude supported his aunt’s. He lists examples of women who in the past contributed to our understanding and proper practice of Torah. Here are some of them:
* The Yerushalmi in Chagiga says that the daughter of Elisha ben Avuyah refuted the atrguments of R’ Yehudah HaNasi and forced him to admit his mistake.
* Rudel, the daughter of Mahari Isserlin was know to study Toraah with as much diligence as men.
* One of the Rishonim, R. Eliezer of Mainz praises his wife usinf the words from Mishlei -Piah Pascha B’Chachma – she is fluent in all the Halachos of Issur V’Heter and on Shabbos she sits and expounds…
* The Tashbatz (3 -78) cites an answer to question on Tosephos in the name of a certain Rebbetzin.
* A certain Rosh HaYeshiva in Baghdad, Rav Shmuel HaLevi had an only daughter who was fuent in Chumash and Gemarah and gave Shiurim to men behind a window where they could not see her.
* The Marshal cites a similar example about his grandmother who directed a Yeshiva for many years giving Shiurim to advanced students from behind a Mechitza.
* In his own generation there was a woman renowned for her wisdom, the sister of Rav Eliyahu Dovid Rabinowitz Teomim of Jerusalem who solved a problem with respect to the permisibility of fasting on Bahab (a series of days -(Monday, Thursday, and the following Monday -when one can fast following a Yom Tov as a form of Teshuva for possible infractions of Halacha on those days due to excessive frivolity) when it occurs on Pesach Sheni.
I would be remiss if I did not add a woman of high caliber scholarship from my own time Nahama Leibovitz. One of my closest friends who is a prominent Rav in a position of leadership in the Yeshiva world was one of her closest Talmidim.
What was that about Nashim Daatan Kalos?