'Women in Jewish Mysticism'

Dr Ada Rapaport-Albert, Head of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and Reader in Jewish History,  University College London

Mon 27 - Thurs 30 March 2006, 5.15pm daily, including a community lecture on Sun 26

Venue: Arts Lecture Theatre in the Humanities Lime Grove Building, University of Manchester (Building 67 on Campus Map)

1. Monday 27 March: ‘The Classical Rabbinic Construction of the Female body'

While the Hebrew Bible distinguishes between the sexes by their distinct biological, social and economic functions, the classical Rabbinic construction of gender becomes, in addition, a matter of ontology: unlike the complex nature of the male, the female nature is defined by its sexuality and construed as essentially physical, in terms which anticipate the philosophical dichotomy that became pervasive in medieval Jewish thought, between the female as 'body' or 'matter' and the male as 'soul' or 'form'. The lecture illustrates this process through a close reading of selected Midrashic texts.

2. Tuesday 28 March: ‘Asceticism, Mysticism and Gender in Later Judaism'

While the construction of gender in ontological terms is by no means unique to rabbinic Judaism and has its close parallels in both Christianity and Islam, only the rabbinic tradition effectively denied the capacity of both sexes equally to transcend their physical nature, and thus also their ontological gender, by embracing the ascetic and especially the celibate life. Despite their rejection of celibacy, and their censure of ascetic self-denial and mortification, the rabbis had always acknowledged that the ascetic regimen was both spiritually and intellectually empowering. They therefore advocated it as an ideal of piety and holiness, albeit within certain restrictions. One of these was to define the ascetic life as the prerogative of certain types of men while denying altogether its legitimacy for all women. The lecture considers this peculiarly gendered notion of the ascetic ideal in the context of the development of the Jewish mystical tradition.


3. Wednesday 29 March: ‘Historical Test Case a): Women in Beshtian Hasidism'

This popular spiritual revival movement, founded in Poland by Israel Ba'al Shem Tov (known by the acronym BeShT) during the second half of the 18th century and still very much with us today, has been portrayed, since the early decades of the 20th century, and increasingly in recent years, as the first 'feminist' revolution in Judaism. Hasidism has been credited with pioneering from the outset the education of women in Yiddish, their improved status within the family and society, and even with the elevation of certain women to the all-powerful position of charismatic leaders, equal in every respect to their male counterparts. While acknowledging the possibility that despite the absence of any reference to this in the Hasidic sources, some such women did occasionally surface and operated at grass-roots level, the lecture attempts to demonstrate that the Hasidic leadership discouraged and even suppressed any attempts by women to claim spiritual authority. It dismisses the notion that historical Hasidism promoted the interests of women as a 20th century myth, inspired by certain extraneous ideologies that sought to anchor themselves in a spiritual movement that was universally perceived as a vital and authentic expression of traditional Judaism.

4. Thursday 30 March: ‘Historical Test Case b): The Gender Revolution of Sabbatianism'

Sabbatianism - a kabbalistically-inspired messianic movement named after its founder, the false Messiah Sabbatai Tsevi, emerged at the heart of the Ottoman Empire in the middle of the 17th century, and quickly spread throughout the Jewish diaspora. The messianic frenzy it created subsided in the wake of the Messiah's conversion to Islam, and the failure of his redemptive vision to materialise by the time of his death. Nevertheless, the movement he inspired persisted for at least another century and a half, operating as a fragmented sectarian organisation - clandestine, syncretistic, and subject to relentless persecution by the rabbinic authorities. One of its most remarkable and persistent features was the radical transformation it envisaged - and to some degree managed to effect - in the nature and status of women. This included a revaluation of women's ritual obligations, their education, their spiritual powers, their relationship to men, and their active involvement in the messianic project, the latter culminating, in one instance, in the promotion of a woman to the role of Messiah. The lecture attempts to identify the historical conditions and literary sources that might have triggered these extraordinary phenomena, and argues that if historical Judaism ever entertained the possibility of a gender revolution, it was the heretical Sabbatian, not the Hasidic movement that strove to bring it about.


Community lecture under the auspices of the Jewish Representative Council and the Zionist Central Council of Manchester, Sun 26 March: ‘Men and Women in Jewish Mysticism', at Mamlock House, 8.00 p.m.

From Late Antiquity to the modern era, the Jewish mystical tradition seems to have excluded women, or at least to have preserved virtually no record of their spiritual and mystical experiences. This contrasts sharply with the prominence of female mystics, and the preservation of large bodies of writing by and about them, in both the Christian and the Islamic traditions. The lecture attempts to account for the uniqueness of the Jewish position, which persisted for centuries despite a great deal of common theological ground and historical interaction between the three faith communities.


Head of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies. She was born in Israel and studied at UCL for both her BA and PhD in Jewish history, and she is Reader in Jewish History.

Her doctoral dissertation was a study of the process by which the Hasidic movement, beginning in mid 18th century Poland as a small, informal group of spiritually inspired individuals, became, by the early decades of the 19th century, a mass movement of spiritual revival in Judaism, which had swept through much of Central and Eastern Europe and was being governed by a fully institutionalized charismatic leadership. Since then Dr. Rapoport-Albert has published many studies of Hasidism, focusing on particular institutions (e.g. confession before the Rebbe, hereditary succession in the leadership) or schools of thought (Braslav, Habad), as well as on particular topics (e.g. the perception of history and history writing within the movement, the position of women in Hasidism).

In addition to her work on Hasidism, Dr. Rapoport-Albert's interests include gender issues in the history of Judaism, especially the gendered perception of the ascetic life and its implications for the virtual exclusion of women from the Jewish mystical tradition. She is currently completing a book entitled Female Bodies - Male Souls: Asceticism and Gender in the Jewish Mystical Tradition, to be published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, and has recently published a monograph in Hebrew on the position of women in the 17th-19th century messianic heresy of Sabbatai Zevi and his successors, including the Polish false messiah Jacob Frank and his daughter Eva.

Dr. Rapoport-Albert teaches courses and supervises postgraduate research on the history and literature of Hasidism, on the Kabbalah and other schools of Jewish esoteric spirituality, and on various aspects of medieval and early modern Jewish history.