Gender Trouble in Hasidism: A New History

Susannah Heschel on Hasidism: A New History

Hasidism: A New History is an impressive accomplishment, representing the collaborative work of eight scholars of Hasidism, beginning in 2007, and providing important information about the history of this extraordinarily influential Jewish religious movement. The book is well-researched, accessible, and appealing to a general readership and specialists alike.

Hasidism: A New History. David Biale, et al. Princeton University Press, 2017.

Reviewers have criticized the authors of Hasidism for omitting women from the group of authors, eight men who received generous grants over many years to write this book. Responding to those critics, three of the book’s authors have countered that “Some have argued that the book lacks a female point of view. We do not believe that only women can write and think about women any more than only Jews can write and think about Jews. To attack a book mainly because of the gender or identity of its authors, rather than the content of its pages, seems to us irresponsible: a book is much more than its title page.”

A book is more than its title page, but the problems with this book begin there. While the distinguished Hasidism scholar Ada Rapoport-Albert was able to participate in the project briefly, other women scholars ought to have been included. In our day, the absence of women from a collaborative group of scholars in a well-funded, long-term academic project is disturbing. It is, moreover, an affront to the many additional women scholars of Hasidism who would have contributed helpfully to the book, adding important dimensions and raising interesting questions, and it does not contribute to the aspiration of gender parity or at least diversity that is encouraged if not mandated in academia, politics, and business. It also sends a discouraging signal to women and non-binary students who might ask if the senior male scholars of Hasidism are going to welcome, mentor, and include them in their discussions.

The critique of Hasidism regarding gender extends beyond its male authors. A major problem is the book’s neglect of the field of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) which arose in the 1960s and is now established within virtually every discipline and university department throughout the United States, Europe, Israel, and many other regions of the globe. The field of Gender Studies began, some might recall, with a critique of scholars for assuming that women were “essentially uninteresting and irrelevant” (Rosaldo). The histories of Hasidism published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave almost no attention to women, so this book might be expected to mark some progress. However, WGSS looks at how gender and sexual identities of both women and men are constructed, enacted, reinforced, and challenged by religious texts, rituals, leadership, and interactions. For example, in Hasidism, the rebbe may enact a “feminine” role in his relationships with male disciples, or he may act in a more dominating “masculine” role, expecting his disciples to perform a submissive, feminine acceptance of his authority. WGSS scholars would consider the emotionally intense, all-male, homosocial settings of the study house, the rebbe’s tisch, and private meetings between rebbe and male adherent, and think about the homoeroticism that is created and then brought by men to the marriages they are expected to have with women. While this need not be a central tenet of this study, its utter absence is significant. The book claims to be “a new history” yet seems to be a generation behind recent scholarship.

Hasidic texts as well as Hasidic communities create social and erotic dimensions that deserve analysis or at least mention, raising questions even if clear answers are not always accessible. For example, while homophobia and transphobia prevail in explicit ways in Hasidic circles, how are homosexuality and transsexuality implicitly cultivated in homosocial settings that insist on a highly regulated heterosexuality? Here the authors might have discussed the homosexual passion of Jiri Langer, whom they cite only for his depiction of the Belzer rebbe’s court. Langer’s own work on the homoeroticism of Hasidism, plus his brother’s discussion of his homosexuality in relation to his attraction to Hasidism, is an obvious source, discussed by the historian Shaun Jacob Halper, that the authors ignore, along with Langer’s misogynistic blaming of women for Judaism’s prohibition of homosexual relations. Equally important in understanding Hasidism is how women are affected by the passionate devotion to the rebbe of their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons. While Hasidic women’s lives have not been given voice in texts to the same extent as those of men, WGSS scholars attempt to read against the grain and raise questions that may not be answerable based on currently available data, but that offer a research agenda for future scholarship; this will at minimum disturb the prevailing narrative.

Questions such as these, however, are not raised by the authors of Hasidism: A New History, who justify their minimal attention to women in the history of the Hasidic movement on the grounds that “women were not counted as Hasidim,” a claim disputed by Lea Taragin-Zeller in her review published in Marginalia. The book contains occasional paragraphs or pages about women, but women are only presented as minor characters in a male drama. Yet there is more textual information available than the authors consider, as well as oral traditions within Hasidic circles that may provide additional insights. Glenn Dynner’s study of kvitlach (petitions) brought to the rebbe by women as well as by men is but one example, and Justin Jaron Lewis’s examination of Hasidic stories reveals much about women’s Hasidic identity as well. At times, the authors approach but do not seem to recognize the evidence before them. They mention that Avraham ha-Malakh praised his wife but fail to give her name. In fact, her name was Gittel, and she remains a well-known figure in Hasidism’s oral tradition, as Tsippi Kauffman mentions in her review in Marginalia. Gittel was known as an exceptionally pious woman and healer. After the death of her husband, she departed for the land of Israel, leaving behind her children, though nothing seems to be known thus far about her life in Israel, nor has her grave been located. Still, she is remembered as one of the most important Hasidic women and her memory is cherished by many Hasidic families to this day. Daughters who are given her name carry an aura of piety and authenticity.

Indeed, the authors of Hasidism: A New History concede that “even if women were not considered Hasidim in their own right, they could still shape the history of Hasidism in significant ways as wives and mothers.” They should add daughters as well, since they also write, “In a time when the wives of Hasidim were generally not considered Hasidot (that is, female disciples of Hasidism), the daughter of the Rebbe of Kotzk acted boldly as if she herself was the reincarnation of her father, especially imitating his bitingly honest way of speaking.” The case of Eydel, the daughter of the Belzer rebbe, is mentioned as an example of a daughter who was admired by her father, but not permitted to succeed him as rebbe. That she dared challenge the succession is presented as evidence by the authors that Hasidism is a modern movement, as though women’s assertions of authority had not occurred earlier in Jewish history. As Justin Jaron Lewis analyzes the evidence, Eydel was enacting a remarkable gender fluidity that characterizes many aspects of Hasidic experience. The emphasis of Hasidism’s authors, by contrast, is on her disappointment and depression.

These brief mentions of a few women are certainly welcome but barely scratch the surface and have no methodological foundation. By which criteria do we examine gender, especially in religious communities in which leadership and authority are in the hands of men? The authors take pains to assure us that regardless of an occasional prominent woman in the Hasidic movement, such as the Maid of Ludmir, there is no “evidence of Hasidism’s gender egalitarianism.” Certainly, the authors are correct that “At the most, we can say that there were exceptional women who assumed some of the functions of tsaddikim, but in no case were they able to establish a permanent court, and certainly not a dynasty.” Then again, no women in any religion held positions of power comparable to men in the eighteenth, nineteenth, or even twentieth century, and power remains mostly in male hands to this day in religions around the globe.

Egalitarianism is not what is at issue, however. Scholars of religion recognize that women are not, of course, equal to men in the structures of pietistic or fundamentalist communities, either in the past or present. But they also recognize the absence of equality in supposedly egalitarian, liberal religious denominations and even in secular communities. Instead, a WGSS analysis works to expose the patriarchal configurations, sexism, and misogyny of a religion, while asking, at the same time, how women reconfigure the structures in ways that may reinforce but also resist and subvert them.

The authors of Hasidism: A New History might have learned from the debates over Saba Mahmood’s important anthropological study of pious Muslim women studying Qur’an in the mosques of Cairo, The Politics of Piety, published in 2005, a veritable turning point in scholarship on women in so-called “fundamentalist” communities. Mahmood was not looking for “gender egalitarianism” but rather trying to understand the appeal of piety to women in a religious system of male authority. The Muslim women in Cairo whom Mahmood studied enhance their personal autonomy and subjectivity through their small group study of the Qur’an in the mosques of Cairo, she argues, without rejecting or overturning the patriarchal religious framework. Mahmood launched a sharp critique of Western, secular feminist scholars, seeking to “question the overwhelming tendency within poststructuralist feminist scholarship to conceptualize agency in terms of subversion or re-signification of social norms, to locate agency within those operations that resist the dominating and subjectivating modes of power.” Basing her argument on Judith Butler’s understanding that the gendered subject is created by performance through the reiterative power of discourses rather than a stable definition of “woman,” Mahmood viewed the mosque movement as women creating agency by enacting virtue. Using rather than repudiating the pious terms of their Muslim community, they enhance their status by performing piety.

Drawing from Butler and Mahmood, a scholar of Hasidism would not ask whether women hold roles equal to those of men – surely they do not – but would rather ask how women (and men) create gender, agency, and subjectivity through the performance of their piety. For example, it may help us understand why so many women today continue to find profound meaning and inspiration in lives of meticulous observance of mitzvot, intense prayer, and withdrawal from secular society, with a consciousness of God’s presence at all times.

Do women in fundamentalist religious movements possess agency? After all, they are subordinate to male authorities and do not partake of many of the key experiences of the religious movement. Understanding agency in secular terms of power, autonomy, and freedom has led many feminist scholars and theologians to reject wholesale those religious movements in which authority is exclusively vested in men who appeal to male-authored texts revealed by a male-imaged God. By contrast, Mahmood sought to expose the limitations and biases in the academic critique of religion that failed, she argued, to understand the nature of women’s religiosity and the empowerment it brings to women.

Her book has been hotly debated: can the motivations of women who join religious movements that place them outside the structures of authority and power be understood not as self-abnegations but as feminist assertions? As Martha Nussbaum argued long ago, there are limits to a sympathetic feminist affirmation of the agency of women in pietist movements since religions can violate fundamental feminist principles by infringing on the basic rights of women (and men) who nonetheless affirm those infringements themselves. Piety, Mahmood counters, is always political, and the implication of women organizing Qur’an study groups extends beyond themselves to their families and communities; they are now agents changing their own lives and transforming the entire community. Here Mahmood’s analysis runs counter to the conventional understanding of feminist scholars and has been contested. Modernity, according to some feminist scholars, has opened opportunities for women’s independence, whereas conservative religious movements, by contrast, with their polemics against modernity and secularism, hinder women’s social and political advancements. On the other hand, Mahmood’s approach receives implicit support from Naomi Seidman’s recent study of the Bais Yaakov religious school system for Hasidic and other orthodox girls: the piety inculcated by those schools produces a strong, independent international network constituting a community of educated religious Jewish women who create their own traditions of stories, songs, travel and pilgrimages. Education brings authority and power in many different forms of expression.

On a separate but related point, the introduction to Hasidism: A New History asks if Hasidism can be considered “modern.” Earlier scholarship in Jewish Studies has used the terms “modern” and “modernity” rather too easily: “The Modern Jew” and “Judaism and Modernity” are a very common book titles, and modernity is too often conflated in such studies with secularism. Unfortunately, the important critique of modernity and secularism as themselves teleological, launched several decades ago by Talal Asad, does not seem to be duly considered by the authors of Hasidism. Mahmood’s analysis drew from Asad to move beyond definitions of agency as empowerment and resistance and recognize that pious study of sacred texts also brings women agency. Agency here is subtle; what counts are the qualities that are not visible – sincerity, devotion, love of God, practices of virtue, internalization of Scripture – but that are central to the semiotics of piety.

As a Jewish holdout against what Charles Taylor calls the “buffered self” of modernity, Hasidism insists that the self is porous and penetrable by God and, more remarkably, that individual piety and, especially, the efforts of the Zaddik, have a profound effect on the inner life of God, a drama in which women as well as men are actors. The semiotics of piety are certainly gendered, with distinct roles for women and men and for people of different age groups, but Hasidism opens agency to women who experience the rich life of prayer cultivated by Hasidism. The question is whether scholars have the sensibility to decipher the semiotics and perceive the underlying religious spirit and its meaning to Hasidism’s adherents.

A unique aspect of Hasidism is the centrality of the rebbe in the lives of his community. The authors of Hasidism: A New History are being somewhat misleading when they write, “Historically, women were not considered Hasidim in the same way as men, even though they might consult a rebbe to receive a blessing for childbirth or other reasons… The special relationship between tsaddik and Hasid was exclusively male: women were wives or daughters of Hasidim, but not Hasidot (the female of Hasidim) themselves.” Earlier in the book, they write that women came to rebbes for blessings and “magical cures,” but we know that women also visit rebbes for advice, counseling, inspiration, and consolation. A Hasidic rebbe is a strong presence in the lives of women and men, exerting enormous influence on each family, advising about the education of children or marriage, helping women and men during times of financial need, counseling the family about illness and conflict, and setting standards of behavior in the community and even within the bedroom. Women seek advice from the rebbe, turning to him in times of grief, anxiety, confusion as well as joy. Women do not have the same prolonged public interactions with the rebbe as men do, since women are excluded from sitting at the rebbe’s tisch (festive meals), singing with him, studying with him, and praying next to him, but for women, cooking for the rebbe and bringing him food is a religious experience analogous to men receiving shirayim (small tastes of food) from the rebbe: a feeling of doing a mitzvah, a sacred deed. The wife of the rebbe also played a spiritual role; for example, the wife of the Pelzovizner rebbe in Warsaw was known for her piety, and other women wanted to pray near her in the small shtiebl because she inspired their devotion; women’s piety was integral to the religious devotion of the community. More recently, the wife of the Satmar Rebbe, R. Yoel Teitelbaum, took over the workings of the Hasidic court when her husband had a stroke; power could be attained by women depending upon particular circumstances and their own personalities, factors affecting men’s power as well.

The authors draw comparisons to other pious communities that are often called “fundamentalist,” such as Christian evangelicals and Salafi Muslims, but it is not always clear how to distinguish Hasidic Jews from non-Hasidic haredi(ultra-Orthodox) Jews who have similarly stringent concerns about gender, clothing, prayer, social behavior, sexual relations, interaction with non-religious Jews, and so forth. Strict rules regarding sexuality are also set forth in the Shulkan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law), the Shortened Code of Jewish Law, and numerous guidebooks to Jewish religious observance, such as that of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz in his pamphlet, Kedoshim Tihiu, discussed by Yakir Englander in his recent study of contemporary haredi attitudes toward gender and the body. Unfortunately, Hasidism: A New History is adamantly Eurocentric. While Hasidism began and flourished in Eastern Europe, its influence reached Middle Eastern and North African Jews in Israel by the nineteenth century. Those Jews had long viewed Kabbalah and the Zohar as holy, and some joined Hasidic yeshivot and communities in Israel, an encounter that may well produce fascinating new religious syntheses.

Hasidism’s chapters on the twentieth century are especially disappointing because they fail to present women’s voices, although those voices are now far more readily available. Instead, these chapters give readers interminable details regarding the clothing mandated by different Hasidic communities and describe in endless salacious detail various sexual practices and proscriptions as severe and ascetic rather than eroticizing. How do we know how people experience these rules about clothing and sexuality? Even with their attention to detail, the authors neglect to note the shift during the past forty years from women wearing colorful clothes to wearing almost exclusively clothes that are black, navy or brown, while sheytls (wigs worn by married women) have gone from curls and elegant “updos” to short, straight hair. Who has mandated these changes, men or women? And how does this explain the appeal of Hasidism to nearly a million Jews today? By presenting Hasidic women through their clothing and as objects of male rebbes’ dictates, the authors are illustrating Mahmood’s point that “Islamism and liberal secularity stand in a relationship of proximity and co-imbrication rather than of simple opposition” to one another. In other words, the secular assumptions of scholarship regarding gender at times mirror the fundamentalist paradigms they claim to oppose.

In the book’s final section, we hear about the fate of various contemporary rabbinical courts when rebbes and rebbetzins fail to produce heirs, though the authors do not explore why this is significant. Describing Hasidism today, the book focuses on institution-building, especially on “family dynamics” and “problems of succession” that the authors call “a riveting melodrama.” But does the melodrama lie with the occasional delay in selecting a replacement for a deceased rebbe or in the imagination of the authors themselves who are suspicious when succession does not occur immediately? Hasidic dynasties do not necessarily end when a rebbe is not immediately replaced, not in this globalized world.

One example: the Kopycznitzer dynasty has not disappeared but blossomed. After the death of the Kopycznitzer rebbe, Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (AYH), in 1967, his son, Moshe Mordechai Heschel, became rebbe in Borough Park while his grandson, Yitzchak Meir Flintenstein, became the Kopycznitzer rebbe in Jerusalem, where he runs a publishing house for Hasidic documents; more recently, Moshe Mordechai Heschel was succeeded by one of his sons in Borough Park, while another son has become an important columnist for HaModia, the haredi weekly newspaper, writing about Hasidism. The granddaughter of AYH, Shoshana Heschel Brayer, married a cousin, the Boyaner rebbe, who succeeded his grandfather, joining two important dynasties, and a daughter, Pearl, married the Chotiner rebbe; their son, Yitzchak Meir Twersky, is a noted author of books about the Chernobyl dynasty. Perhaps it would have been wise to consult members of the Hasidic community to avoid certain errors. The noted composer Steve Reich has not only “paid homage to the Ba’al Shem Tov,” but is a devoted Hasid of the Boyaner rebbe; Meshulum Syshe Heschel, father of Shoshana, was not killed in an automobile accident; Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt (d. 1825) was known not as the “Apter Rebbe,” (567) but the Apter Rav or the Ohev Yisrael.

In the end, what is it we want to know about Hasidism? For starters, we want to know why so many people are attracted to it when there is such an array of religious choices; we want to understand how Hasidism differs from other religious movements within contemporary Judaism; we wonder at the amazing influence spiritual Hasidism has had on so many dimensions of Judaism, secular as well as pious, literary as well as liturgical: is it not the most influential and long-lasting religious movement within Judaism of the past two thousand years?

“A New History” of Hasidism would make use of recent archival and textual discoveries as well as mobilize newer methods of analysis. Many examples of these are discussed by the nine of us who have reviewed the book in Marginalia with the hope that scholars in the future will discuss Hasidism with greater insight and sophistication. Methods of analysis drawn from disciplines including literary theory, religious studies, WGSS, anthropology, and social history would reveal dimensions of Hasidism that are missing in this book and await discussion in an actual “New History.” Most of all, a scholar studying Hasidism must not be spiritually tone deaf.

While the book brings the history of Hasidism to the present day, it is not as much of a break with nineteenth-century historiography as it wishes. Like earlier studies, this one, too, cites the critical and at times sarcastic comments of Hasidism’s opponents, yet insufficiently cites the voices of those who have been inspired by the movement, especially in recent years. We may not be able to hear music or dance with Hasidim by reading a book, but passages from figures such as Abraham Joshua Heschel or Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who integrated Hasidic teachings in their own theological writings, could have been incorporated to give the reader evidence of how Hasidism has been transfigured and exerted a far wider realm of religious influence, even outside the Jewish framework.

Ultimately, we want to know what draws people to Hasidism – what they find in Hasidism that is not attainable elsewhere and that is worth the strictures imposed by the movement. The answers will certainly vary. But attending carefully to both women and the hermeneutics of gender will help us investigate more fully and see a broader range of answers. Many non-Orthodox Jews, including feminists, feel deeply inspired by the religiosity of Hasidism without observing all the mitzvot. For some, the attraction may well lie not in the sense of community nor in the strict regulations, but in the particular nature of the piety. Like Hasidim, modern Orthodox Jews also follow the Shulkhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) strictly, pray three times a day, and devote time to daily study of Torah and Talmud (women as well as men), yet many have little interest in cultivating the kind of intense relationship with God central to Hasidism. What is the nature of that Hasidic relationship with God? Perhaps the authors of Hasidism: A New History are not entirely to blame for failing to explore these questions in their study. For too long, scholars of Judaism have failed to develop the appropriate conceptual apparatus and vocabulary to understand and describe Jewish piety. If we cannot speak of piety and prayer as scholars, we cannot begin to understand Hasidism. A Hasidic Jew lives with the presence of God, and it is, unfortunately, God who is most absent from this book.

Susannah Heschel is the Eli M. Black Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Abraham Geiger and the Jewish JesusThe Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany, and she recently co-edited Muslim Responses to European Orientalism.