Sunday 22 May 2022

383) Traces of a messianic feminist revolution in Chabad ideology



This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Ada Rapoport-Albert (1945-2020)[1] traces the evolution of women within Chabad thought. While some leaders within the contemporary Chareidi and Chassidic world are not permitting women to drive, and are obscuring women’s faces in media publications, the views emanating from the last Chabad Rebbe are rather enlightening.

The early Chabad movement

From the writings of the early Chabad Rebbes, there does not seem to be any departure from the way other Chassidic groups were regarding women which was traditionally exclusive rather than inclusive.

However, some have painted a slightly different picture by claiming that, starting with the first Chabad Rebbe, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), known as the Alter Rebbe, we begin to see the first sprouting of ideas that were moving away from the typical religious views on women popular at those times. Three examples are presented as evidence of this turn to more inclusivity:

a) There is an internal Chabad tradition originating in the early twentieth-century, that R. Shneur Zalman taught Chassidut to his daughter, Freyde.

b) In 1794, R. Shneur Zalman’s Hilchot Talmud Torah was published in Shklov which included the traditional view that women and girls do not study Torah, but he suggested that “nonetheless, women, too, are duty bound to study the halakhot that apply to them.”

c) In 1817 and 1820 respectively, two Yiddish works entitled Pokeach Ivrim and Seder Birchot haNehenin were published by R. Shneur Zalman’s son and successor, Dov Ber, also known as the Mitteler Rebbe. These were written, it is claimed,[2] in a non-technical language accessible to women and is “evidence of the desire to involve women in the hasidic path of Habad.”

Rapoport-Albert challenges all these three arguments as unconvincing or even mistaken. Firstly, while R. Shneur Zalman may indeed have taught his daughter Freyde, there is a long tradition of rabbis teaching their daughters so this is no indication of a radical departure from accepted norms.

Secondly, that women study laws relating specifically to them is also a long-standing tradition and did not indicate any official move towards broadening the education and literacy of women. The fact that the last Chabad Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, did quote this ruling often, is anachronistic in Rapoport-Albert’s view, and was what she calls a:

“modern Habad projection of contemporary concerns on to its eighteenth-century origins.”

This does not, however, detract from the last Rebbe’s real and innovative attempts at the inclusivity of women which we shall soon discuss.

Thirdly, the two Yiddish publications were certainly accessible to those uneducated readers with no knowledge of Hebrew, but there is no indication that they were directed specifically to women or that women actively even engaged with them.

Hillel of Porich

A Chabad hagiographical story tells of R. Hillel of Porich (Parichi), originally a Chernobyl chassid but later joined the ranks of Chabad chassidim, who boasted:

“Let women and mad men travel to Vilednik (Novyy Veledniki - the seat of Israel of Vilednik [c.1789-1850], a miracle-working tsadik and disciple of Mordekhai of Chernobyl) while [‘real’] men and pietists (hasidim) travel to Lubavitch.”[3]

R. Shneur Zalman and pre-20th century Chabad

Rapoport-Albert points out that all indications are that R. Shneur Zalman was no different from most of the other Chassidic leaders of that time who had very little to do with women. He is known to have rejected the common practice of rebbes distributing brochas or blessings to the throngs of people who came to visit, as this involved the expectation of some miraculous outcome. He instead focused on disseminating his teachings or ‘torah’. In what became known as the Liozna Ordinances, strict regulations were formulated to contain and restrict the ‘distinct classes of chassidim’ who came to visit his court – and there is no reference to women. Also, women were excluded from his ‘torah’ sessions.  This notion is bolstered by (granted later) hagiographical literature which claimed that neither R. Shneur Zalman nor his early successors has anything to do with women as a matter of policy. Again, this is to be contrasted with the twentieth-century shift in Chabad policy to actively engage with groups of women, and this continues to set them apart from most other Chassidic sects even today.

In fact, in pre-twentieth-century Chabad literature, women do not feature except for references to biblical women, who are anyway allegorised away from human personalities to become identified with kabbalistic sefirot or mystical spheres.

Shift in eschatology[4]

From around the twentieth-century, an interesting shift relating to women begins to be evident. 

Eschatologically, this is explained as a move towards messianic times when, according to Kabbalah, the ‘feminine’ will be equated to, and even dominate over, the ‘male’. This mystical spiritual concept translates into a shift in gender perception that must also manifest in reality.

Of interest is the fact that although R. Shneur Zalman does refer to ikveta deMeshicha, or first stirring of the messianic age, messianism features marginally in his writings (Rapoport-Albert 2013:446).

He does, however, at least in theory, expound upon this future eschatological shift in male and female roles. R. Shneur Zalman explains the difference between the wording of the sixth and seventh sheva berachot, or marriage benedictions as follows:

The sixth blessing concludes with “blessed is G-d, who gladdens the groom and the bride” -while the seventh concludes with “blessed is G-d, who gladdens the groom with the bride.” These two blessings allude to the difference between the world now, and the world in messianic times. In the sixth blessing - referring to the world now - the woman is considered relatively inferior to her future position in the seventh blessing - referring to messianic times - when she will become primary and the groom secondary. In other words, in messianic times there will be an inversion in the spiritual sefirotic realms and this will eventually manifest in a more material reflection in the physical world as well, when women will be more dominant.[5]

Rapoport-Albert (2013:446) writes

“But in the absence of any sense of messianic urgency in Shneur Zalman’s teachings, which present a particularly spiritualized brand of personal eschatology, and without a shred of historical evidence that he was involved in active messianic agitation, there is no reason to suppose that he expected the conventional gender hierarchy to be transcended or reversed in the persisting “exilic” reality of his time.”

So, R. Shneur Zalman did not seem concerned with the notion of imminent redemption. This, however, all changed as the twentieth-century dawned.

Eschatology in the 20th century and the change in policy

R. Shalom Dov Ber (1860-1920)

Rapoport-Albert (2013:447) shows that:

“Habad did not display a more urgent sense of messianic mission until the early twentieth century.”

It is significant that from the time of the fifth Chabad Rebbe, R. Shalom Dov Ber, women were beginning to be addressed formally as an entity. They were no longer invisible to the Rebbes. R. Shalom Dov Ber (or more accurately his wife, Shterna Sara) initiated a fundraising initiative, which exclusively engaged women, and for the first time in Chassidic history a Ladies’ Association was established. The Chabad movement was experiencing the first effects of a modernisation process, something the rest of the Chassidic world was shying well away from.

This was, however, not yet a fully-fledged adoption of “inversion eschatology” only hinted to by the previous leaders of the movement, because R. Shalom Dov Ber still displayed an aversion to women who were influenced by - in his words - ‘satanic forces’:

“Satan dances first among the women, to cast into them the filth of libertinism. They then run their households in the spirit of libertinism, taking charge of the guidance and education of their children. With their frivolous notions they prevail upon their husbands to dismiss the traditional religious teachers and to send their sons instead to the [secular] teachers who corrupt them.”[6]

Notwithstanding this, moves had been made during his tenure and with his blessing, to establish a Chassidic Ladies’ Association.

R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson (1880-1950)

Then things began to change under the leadership of R. Shalom Dov Ber’s son, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Chabad Rebbe. In 1929, on a visit to America, he set up a Ladies’ Association, not just to fundraise but to actively further the cause of Orthodox Judaism. He promoted a campaign of ‘family purity’ which he entrusted over to the women. He actively and officially recruited women to further the cause of Judaism. He wrote:

“The most important thing is to make every effort to ensure that the activists in this matter would be the women themselves. They will be the ones who inspire and organize. One should find young women who, with God’s help, have a great capacity for influencing others. We have seen tangible evidence that when they take upon themselves this kind of activity, they are successful.”

Then, writing from Poland in 1936, R. Yosef Yitzchak said:

“It is the duty of the wives and daughters of the hasidim . . . to stand at the forefront of every enterprise that would strengthen religion and Judaism in general, and in particular family purity.”[7]

Unlike his father, R. Yosef Yitzchak did not blame the women for the religious decline but rather used “the wives and daughters of the hasidim” and their ladies’ associations to promote Judaism. Women were not yet Chassidim in their own right – only wives and daughters of Chassidim.

In 1937, he established another association, this time to promote the study of Chassidut by women and girls, entitled Achot haTemmimim (which may have been meant to be in the plural “achyot”) Sisters of the Temmimim (Temmimim or ‘wholesome’ were what the male yeshiva students were called). He even met with one such girls’ group in Riga and spoke to them the same way he would have addressed their male counterparts. This was very unusual for that time. After 1942, operating now out of Brooklyn, New York, he established his network of girls’ schools known as Beit Rivka (and Sarah) which incorporated the former Sisters of the Temmimim.[8]

Having witnessed the events of the Second World War, his writings take on a very messianic and apocalyptic tone. He expresses allegorically that:

“the present time is the Holy Sabbath’s Eve, just prior to the lighting of the candles.”[9]

 He spoke of a “fiery awakening” of universal repentance which was to herald the redemption. This became a slogan:

Le’altar liteshuvah, le’altar lige’ulah” (“forthwith repentance, forthwith redemption’’).

Nevertheless, from his writings, it does not seem that he was prepared to evoke the kabbalistic and messianic imagery of “inverted gender” yet. His motivation seems to have been more pragmatic and simply to counter the effects of assimilation, but the end result was that his movement had become even more inclusive of women.

R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994)

Things changed dramatically under the leadership of the last Rebbe. We witness, for the first time, the emergence, not just of “wives and daughters of chassidim”, but of female Chassidim in their own right. Husband and wife teams were sent throughout the globe to work together as a unit. This was a far cry from the earlier generations, where R. Shalom Dov Ber once teased his mother by saying:

““Mother, surely you are a hasidic Jewess [a khsidishe yidene]” she replied: “Whether I am a hasidic Jewess I do not know, but that I am of hasidic stock [fun khsidim shtam] is certain.” The rebbetzin clearly could not seriously entertain the notion that she was herself a hasid. As a woman, her connection to Hasidism was entirely a matter of genealogy” (Rapoport-Albert 2013:463).

This was in stark contrast to the ideology of R. Menahem Mendel Schneerson. In 1952, soon after becoming Rebbe, he founded a women’s organisation which was significantly called Agudat Neshei uVenot Chabad, the Association of the Wives and Daughters of Chabad. This name is ambiguous because it could just as well read, the Association of Women and Girls of Chabad. No longer are they just “wives and daughters of the Chassidim”, but now they were recognised as being Chabad Chassidim with their own identity.

However, unlike his father-in-law R. Yosef Yitzchak who was more pragmatic, the new Rebbe:

“framed his own empowerment of women in eschatological terms that invoked all the earlier Habad references to the inverted gender hierarchy of the messianic future” (Rapoport-Albert 2013:465).

The Rebbe himself wrote:

“As is well-known and explained in kabbalistic and hasidic books, in the messianic future the supremacy of the [female] sefirah Malkhut [the lowest of the ten gradations of the divine emanation] will be revealed, because its root lies above all the other sefirot [the male ones, which emanate and bestow], as Scripture says: “a woman shall encircle a man,” and “an excellent woman is a crown to her husband.””


This is a fascinating discussion because, for some people, this ‘liberation’ of women is too much - while for others, this is not enough. Either way, what is noteworthy is that these innovative moves took place within the unlikely and traditionally conservative setting of a Chassidic movement in the first place. Of course, much more has happened in the world since 1994 and gender issues are no longer just male and female. Our focus here is simply to trace the 'feminist revolution during the era of Chabad Rebbes and we have seen a slow but formidable progression of ideas throughout:

·   R. Shneur Zalman acknowledges, in theory (al pi Kabbalah) at least, a time when gender priorities will change, but it was not yet the time for “gender inversion” theology.

·    With R. Shalom Dov Ber, women were actually recognized as an entity. Granted they were used to fundraise for the men’s yeshiva, but the Chassidic world now had its first Ladies’ Association.

·     There was further progression under R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, albeit first only allowing women to further the cause of ‘family purity’ (but at least this was more radical than fundraising). Women were noted for their “great capacity for influencing others”, but they were still only considered “wives and daughters of the Chasidim”.

·   With  R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson women actually evolved to become Chabad Chassidim in their own right, and this was deemed necessary because of urgent messianic and kabbalistic considerations which called for some form of anticipated practical “gender inversion”.

What is also striking is that we witness a liberalisation of women that has no ostensible connection to the parallel movements simultaneously taking place within modernity, but is instead framed entirely within mystical and eschatological imagery. This way it is not a radical wing of women’s liberation that is bringing about a societal change, but rather a manifestation of kabbalisic ideology that is simply being applied to what was deemed a messianic requirement of the age.

Then, in a talk he delivered in 1982 on the twentieth anniversary of his mother’s passing, he further emphasised this messianic concept of “gender inversion”. While, according to technical kabbalistic ideology, the main flow of the divine energy is through the male, which only applies to the spiritual realm. It does not yet translocate to the physical realm unless there is the intervention of the female. He explained that:

“This is affected by the [female] sefirah Malchut above, and in the same fashion below by every Jewish woman.”

This is very significant because in previous Chassidic thought this function was the proclivity of the Rebbes, who intermediated and caused the 'energy flow' to manifest in physicality through their blessing. Now, however, the earlier Rebbes' previous exclusivity had been somewhat overshadowed if not replaced by “every Jewish woman”.

Later in 1982, he went further and used terminology that had previously only been applied to Rebbes and tzadikim; the notion of bestowing the blessings of “banai, chayai umezonai” (children, life and sustenance) with both its physical and spiritual connotations – and now applied it to women.

Women had, evidently, transcended their already radical role of becoming Chassidim to a much higher status, that of “tzadikim”, who form the link between heaven and earth, the spiritual and the physical:

“and how much more so as regards the drawing down of the true good, the general good, and the inner good — the true and perfect redemption by means of our righteous Messiah.”

This is to be, and can only be, brought about by women.

Further reading




[1] Rapoport-Albert, A., 2013, ‘From Woman as Hasid to Woman as “Tsadik” in the Teachings of the Last Two Lubavitcher Rebbes’, Jewish History 27,435-473.

[2] Rapoport-Albert is referring to an article written by Naftali Loewenthal, ‘Women and the Dialectic of Spirituality in Hasidism.’

[3] Kahan, Shemu'ot veSipurim, vol. 2 (Kfar Habad, 1974), 50 § 49.

[4] Eschatology is defined as having to do with the end of time, the Messiah and the afterlife. It is used here purely in the sense of messianism.

[5] See Seder tefilot mikol hashanah al pi nusah ha’ari zal (Kopys, 1816),1: Derushim lehatunah, 36c-d, 40d; Birkat erusin venisu’in, 43a-d.

[6] Igerot kodesh . . . Shalom Dovber (Brooklyn, 1982), 1:274 § 117.

[7] Igerot kodesh . . . Yosef Yitzchak, vol. 4 (Brooklyn, 1983), 13 § 873.

[8] His attempts at creating women’s organisations was not successful by his own admission. A small number of women joined the Sisters of the Temmimim and the schools were not yet particularly teaching Chabad ideology.

[9] Igerot kodesh . . . Yosef Yitzchak 2:531 § 633.

No comments:

Post a Comment