Ada Rapoport-Albert

Gendered Spiritualities in Early Modern Jewish Cultures

1. The Problematics of Ascetism and its Gender Implications

2. What We Know about the Spiritual Lives of Medieval and Early Modern Jewish Women

3. The Exceptional Prominence of Women in the 17th -Century Messianic Movement of Sabbatai Tsevi and its 18th-Century Offshoots

4. From Messianic Prophetess to ‘Madwoman’:
The Displacement of Female Spirituality in the Post-Sabbatian Era

5. The Position of Women in Hasidism: Myth and Reality

The seminar «Gendered Spiritualities in Early Modern Jewish Cultures» was taught by Prof. Ada Rapoport-Albert (University College, London) from 1st to 15th of March 2018. Rapoport-Albert was Emerita Professor in Jewish Studies and focused her career in the history of the Jewish mystical tradition. The sessions dealt with:

The problematics of asceticism and its gender implications

The classical rabbinic sources issue conflicting directives on the appropriate attitude to corporeal pleasures, the body, and sexuality. The lecture highlights the tensions generated by the unresolved conflict between affirmation and self-denial, suggesting that it gave rise to a peculiarly gendered evaluation of the ascetic life, which resulted in the effective exclusion of women from the entire literary record of the Jewish mystical tradition. This distinguishes the Jewish mystical tradition as it has come down to us from the comparable traditions of both Christianity and Islam, where the saintly lives and teachings of female mystics feature prominently alongside those of their male counterparts.

What we know about the spiritual lives of medieval and early modern Jewish women

This lecture examines the male construction of female piety as it emerges from a range of late medieval and early modern literary sources of various genres, while at the same time attempting to extract women’s own sense of their spiritual experience and aspirations from records which, with few exceptions, yield it only incidentally or indirectly.

The exceptional prominence of women in the 17th-century messianic movement of Sabbatai Tsevi and its 18th-century offshoots

Sabbatai Tsevi was a kabbalist from the Ottoman port town of Izmir, who inspired a messianic movement that swept through the whole of the Jewish world during the second half of the 17th century. At the height of his international celebrity as the long-awaited Jewish messiah, he abruptly converted to Islam in the autumn of 1666. Traditionally viewed as a shameful act of betrayal, his apostasy, instantly denounced by some, was interpreted by others in kabbalistic terms as an integral part of his redemptive mission. Despite repeated attempts by rabbinic authorities to root out what was now being viewed as a heretical movement, it persisted for at least another century and a half, albeit increasingly as a clandestine sectarian organisation. One of its most distinctive features, from inception to demise, was the active involvement and high visibility of women within its ranks. The lecture explores the diverse manifestations of this anomaly, setting it in its particular historical and theological contexts.

From messianic prophetess to ‘madwoman’: The displacement of female spirituality in the post Sabbatian era

The lecture considers the controversial question of the relationship between Sabbatianism and Hasidism – a movement of spiritual revival that emerged in Poland in the middle of the 18th century. The two movements shared a number of conspicuous characteristics, including their common kabbalisitic legacy and personal-charismatic leadership. It has often been suggested that Hasidism was either a direct product of or a dialectic reaction to the failure of Sabbatianism. However, one of the striking differences between them was their attitude towards women. While Sabbatianism granted some women power and authority, and fully incorporated all women in the ritual and spiritual life of their communities, Hasidism, despite the fact that its doctrine was particularly conducive to the full integration of women, and even to the celebration of women as the embodied realisation of its ultimate spiritual goal, in reality excluded them from its all-male fraternities and reinforced the traditional gender norms which had been breached so spectacularly by the Sabbatians.

The position of women in Hasidism: myth and reality

This lecture offers a critical analysis of the popular 20th-century portrayal of Hasidism as a gender-egalitarian movement. It evaluates the sources on which this view is based, and considers the ideological agendas that underlies it, while also exploring the genuine re-evaluation of women’s relationship to the movement that has been taking place exceptionally in the hasidic school of Habad-Lubavitch since the inter-war period.