Review of Ada Rapoport-Albert, Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbetai Zevi, 1666-1816. Oxford: Littman, 2011. 400 pp. $64.50.

By Joshua Schwartz

Ada Rapoport-Albert’s recent monograph, Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi: 1666-1816 is, in a large way, a follow up to her landmark article, “On Women in Hasidism: S. A. Horodecky and the Maid of Ludmir Tradition.”[1]  There, Rapoport-Albert pushed back against what had become a dominant narrative in Hasidic studies, as proposed by Shmuel Abba Horodecky, the great, early scholar of Hasidic historiography, in his writings centered on the legendary female Tzaddik (charismatic leader) of Hasidism, the Maiden of Ludmir.[2]  Horodecky claimed that the phenomenon of Hasidism was a watershed moment for gender politics in Jewish history, in which women were granted access to positions of power and authority untold of in previous eras, as typified by the famous Maiden of Ludmir, who became a Rebbe herself.  In her research, Rapoport-Albert showed that the phenomenon of the Maiden was sketchily historical at best, and her legend, in its exceptionality, instead showed the limits which were maintained and even increasingly imposed on women.  The egalitarian impulse Horodecky saw in Hasidism, Rapoport-Albert claimed, was itself a product of his twentieth-century Zionist ideology, projected backwards onto the historical object of his romantic yearning for a “useable past.”  As underscored by a more recent article, the early twentieth century saw the first, systematic formation of a “female constituency” in Hasidism, specifically in the Chabad community, but even then it was a conservative reaction to the growing position and liberation of  women in the secular sphere, to which the Hasidic community was losing ground.[3]  In short, to Rapoport-Albert, there was nothing that inhered within Hasidism that lent itself to egalitarianism.  We can let her words resound as a final thought, for now:


The movement possessed no ideology aspiring to equalize women’s religious or social status to that of men, nor did it set out to educate them in Yiddish, or to elevate them to positions of authority as rebbes.[4]


Her new monograph, however, marks a turning point in her thinking.  Previously, she had written that Hasidism itself was an inheritor of a kabbalistic tradition which itself inherited the patriarchal norms of rabbinic Judaism.[5]  Rapoport-Albert now argues that the Sabbatian movement represented a bellwether moment for women’s liberation within Jewish history, a “veritable gender revolution that the Sabbatian movement envisaged, and in no small measure put into effect.”[6]  Hasidism, then, is represented as not merely a continuous link in a chain of female suppression but rather as a particularly conservative reaction to women’s liberation that exploded outward along with the Sabbatian heresy, seeking to maintain Jewish mystical spirituality, and even the populism, but jettisoning any blurring of gender roles or lines.[7]  Women were taken out of the sphere of agency and transformed into discursive objects, representing the possibility of egalitarianism, which was only possible in a far-flung messianic future, that is to say, not now.  Hasidism continued the pre-existent trend in Kabbalah, in which the feminine was representative of the material and was thus the staging ground for redemption, as embodied by the transmutation of the physical into the sublime and spiritual.[8]

But what, exactly, was the egalitarian revolution posed by the Sabbatian heretics?  In her impressive and well-researched tome, Rapoport-Albert seeks to explore this question both from a number of different historical angles, spanning the range of the Sabbatian movement, from its inception through the Frankist outgrowth, where she locates an especially liberatory moment.  Rapoport-Albert grounds the possibility of female religious authority in the precedent set by the history of female prophets.  Beyond the Bible’s Deborah and Chuldah, medieval and early modern Jewish spiritualism included significant examples of female visionaries, seers, and even prophets.[9]  Rabbinic authorities, who were universally male, engaged in an attempt to undermine and cease such moments of and opportunities for charismatic power,[10] perceiving its spontaneity and direct claim to religious authority as threatening to a religious system structured on a system of law as interpreted by sanctioned authorities.[11]  The Sabbatian movement was led and spread by such charismatic leaders, throwing open the gates of prophecy within its mystical conventicles, which spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe.

The availability of leadership roles to women was the main feature that, to Rapoport-Albert, distinguished Sabbatianism as a radical, unqualified example of women’s equality within early modern Jewish history.  This trend reached its culmination in the apotheosis of Eva Frank (1754-1816), the daughter of Jakob Frank (1726-1791).  In the longest chapter of the book, “The Redemptive ‘Maiden,’”[12]  Rapoport-Albert not only identifies the presence of women in the court of Frank, but also suggests that they were deemed necessary, complementary to the equally necessary males.  She writes, “Precisely by virtue of being female, they were construed as necessary complements to the figures of the redeeming males – a concept that appears to be rooted in kabbalistic tradition.”[13]  While Rapoport-Albert is correct that the theme of gendered complementarity is structural within kabbalistic ontology, it is an odd claim, since such complementarity turned so often into instrumentality.  While Rapoport-Albert is surely correct that the physical presence of women within Frank’s court was a significant shift from previous monogendered kabbalistic environments (such as the circles of the Zohar or the Arizal), I believe she goes too far in marking the radical difference for women in Sabbatianism.  After all, just like female figures of authority in Hasidic history,[14] Eva’s charisma, even her messianic and divine status, was due to her relation to the messianic figure of Jakob Frank.  Rapoport-Albert is surely correct, on a material basis, that women had a greater role to play, but in terms of discursive agency, her claims go a bit too far.  Similarly, the figure of the Maiden of Ludmir, like female charismatic figures from other Christianity or Islam, was able to transcend the political limitations of her sex through her celibacy, so was celibacy offered as a means for women in the Sabbatian movement to gain access to privileged spaces.[15]  Today, we can be critical of a kind of egalitarianism which does not allow for the full presence of women both as spirit and as flesh.

Lastly, I wish to treat the topic of the heretical and the messianic, an argument regarding which, in a sense, is the core of Rapoport-Albert’s impressive monograph.  Running through the book is an implied, and sometimes explicit, argument that rabbinic Judaism is necessarily and unavoidably patriarchal, and that the only way for Judaism to attain gender egalitarianism is through heresy.  In this position, Rapoport-Albert adopts an ideological position within the Sabbatian literature itself, one distinctly modern, in which the heretical is adopted as an intentional identity and posed against religion.  In his major text, The Words of the Lord, Frank says, “Jacob maintained the honour of his Lord even when he was in the place of other gods.  So, too, must we maintain the honour of our Lord, and how shall we do this?  By discarding every law and every religion. (§219)  He further said, “All the religions that have existed up to now… they must all be cut down. (§708)[16]  Frank self-consciously viewed himself as a heretic, as an opponent of religion.  Heresiology is a major feature of many normative religions, in which authorities maintain the discrete lines and integrity of their tradition and community by declaring certain positions and/or practices “heretical.”  Only in the modern world, in which a space has been carved out for the non-religious, can one step outside of one’s inherited sphere and position oneself as an opponent of religion. The heretical has become chosen and positive, both for Frank and for Rapoport-Albert, who saw it as the only means by which Judaism could attain a state of egalitarianism.[17]

As noted above, a major point in Rapoport-Albert’s gender critique of Hasidism was its deferral of equality to a continuously-deferred messianic age.  She writes,


An exception may be found in the eschatological theme of the elevation of women, and the intensification of female power, that occurs from time to time in the homiletic literature of Hasidism … Far from advancing the spiritual empowerment of women in the here and now, it serves primarily to highlight the contrast the promise of this empowerment in the utopian future and its absence from the mundane reality in the present.[18]


Here, Rapoport-Albert creates a sharp distinction between messianism and heresy, or perhaps normative messianism and heretical messianism.  To her perspective, the Hasidic positing of gender egalitarianism is a fantasy used to highlight the unredeemed nature of this very unredeemed world.  In this manner, Rapoport-Albert implicitly subscribes both to the authorities who opposed Sabbatianism as well as the Sabbatians themselves (or at least Frank), consenting to their marking the Sabbatians as heretics in contrast to normative, traditional Judaism.  This is an odd position for an historian to take, as the question, ultimately, is a metaphysical one: has the Messiah come or not?  If he has, then it is completely within the bounds of normative rabbinic Judaism that gender equalize, whereas if he has not, then, at least within the internal logic, such a belief is heretical.  Indeed, Rapoport-Albert undoes her own claim, as, in a footnote, she acknowledges that the relative progressivism of Chabad, in terms of gender, is due to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s genuine belief that the Messiah had already come.[19]  As Elliot Wolfson has extensively shown, in his analysis of the teachings of Menachem Mendel Schneerson,[20] the equalizing of genders was structurally imbricated within the Rebbe’s messianic theory.  Again, though, it bears repeating that, on a material level, Rapoport-Albert’s point is absolutely sound, that women’s exclusion was maintained and even strengthened, in Hasidism, despite its theoretical pretensions.  As a question of Jewish ideology, though, her consigning of gender egalitarianism to the sphere of heresy is unnecessary, as is evidenced by contemporary efforts within the Modern Orthodox and Halachic Egalitarian Jewish communities, who believe in maximizing female access to religious authority or fully equal obligation and privilege within the law, respectively.  That question, however, is beyond the scope of this review, though I hope to treat it in the near future.

[1]    Ada Rapoport-Albert, “On Women in Hasidism: S. A. Horodecky and the Maid of Ludmir Tradition,” Jewish History: Essays in Honor of Chimen Abramsky,  edited by A. Rapoport-Albert and S. Zipperstein (London: 1988), 495-525.

[2]    See S. A. Horodecky, He-Hasidut ve-ha-Hasidim, 2nd ed. (Tel Aviv, 1943), IV:68ff and the abridged one-volume edition translated into English, Leaders of Hasidism (London, 1928), in the chapter entitled “The Maid of Ludmir,” pp. 113ff.

[3]    Ada Rapoport-Albert; “The Emergence of a Female Constituency in Twentieth-Century HaBaD;” in Let the Old Make Way for the New: Studies in the Social and Cultural History of Eastern European Jewry Presented to Immanuel Etkes, Vol. 1: Hasidism and the Musar Movement; Edited by David Assaf and Ada Rapoport-Albert (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar, 2009); pp. 7*-68* (English section).

[4]    Eadem, Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi: 1666-1816 (Oxford: Littman, 2011), 5.

[5]    Eadem, “Women and Hasidism,” 495-6.

[6]    Eadem, Women and the Messianic Heresy, 13.

[7]    Rapoport-Albert takes especial exception, writing, “Against the background of the bold, Sabbatian redemptive vision which, as we have seen, had promised to deliver the equality and liberation of women – acknowledging their prophetic inspiration, investing them with power as autonomous agents, and fully engaging them en masse as an active constituency of the messianic movement – hasidism’s disregard for women is particularly striking.”  See eadem, Women and the Messianic Heresy, 295.

[8]    Rapoport Albert writes, “Perceived as physical, and above all sexual, [women] became the objects of spiritual transformation without ever being allowed to engage in it actively as subjects.”  See ibid., 267.  Though she does not make the connection herself, Rapoport-Albert is in strong alignment with views propounded by Elliot R. Wolfson, who has, in innumerable locations, detailed the discursive utilization of the figure of the feminine in the ontology of Jewish mysticism.

[9]    See ibid., ch. 2: Historical Precedents and Contexts, pp. 57-79.

[10]  In this way, the conservative reaction to mystical prophecy was structurally similar to the misnagdic opposition to Hasidism, though, Rapoport-Albert’s point is underscored, since the charismatic figures in that later case were also universally male.

[11]  Rapoport-Albert notes that female charismatic figures are revisioned as those possessed by demonic spirits (dybbuk), who need the spiritual assistance of a male charismatic figure.  See ibid., 283ff.

[12]  Here, I believe Rapoport-Albert attempted to draw a linguistic parallel between the mythic heroine of the falsely lauded Hasidic movement and the true, historical figure of women’s authority in the Sabbatian movement, Eva Frank.

[13]  Ibid., 179.

[14]  See eadem, “Emergence,” 56*-59*.

[15]  See eadem, Women and the Messianic, 36, 43 59-60,81, and 253-254. Rapoport-Albert never quite squares the circle with the libertine element within Sabbatianism, which she also describes as part of the liberation of women (who are so frequently associated with the sexual) within the movement.  She did, though, provide us with a fantastic edition of a fascinating textual artefact from the Frankist movement, entitled “Something for the Female Sex: A Call for the Liberation of Women, and the Release of the Female Libido from the Shackles of Shame,” printed here as an appendix (pp. 299-345).  In it, Rapoport-Albert draws fascinating connections between the Frankist movement and nascent women’s liberation within Central Europe.

[16]  Cited in ibid., 257n.79.

[17]  Interestingly, seven years prior, Shaul Magid, in an article published in Nashim journal, wrote a stirring and passionate defense of egalitarian Judaism, which was only truly possible through heresy.  In his conclusion, he writes, “I firmly believe that with all their historical/critical apparatus and creative energy, modern Judaisms have the wherewithal to meet the challenge of making holistic sense of Judaism and gender, and that this includes confronting the limitations of a purely halakhic solution. To do this, however, we must be willing to construct new boundaries, creating a new theater for our own halakhic language.” (pp. 209-210)  See Shaul Magid, “Is Egalitarianism Heresy?: Rethinking Gender on the Margins of Judaism,” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues 8 (2004): 189-229.  Since Rapoport-Albert’s book is ostensibly a work of history, it is not surprising that she did not refer to Magid’s paper in her research.  However, it is quite an interesting parallel!

[18]  Rapoport-Albert, Women and the Messianic, 273n.18 and cf. 129-131n.65.

[19]  Ibid., 272-273n. 39.

[20]  See Elliot R. Wolfson, Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 200-23.


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