Hasidic Studies: Essays in History and Gender is a collection of essays that spans over 40 years and challenges many received notions about the...

Hasidic Studies: Essays in History and Gender is a collection of essays that spans over 40 years and challenges many received notions about the history of Hasidism —its origins, the evolving nature of its structure, its leadership and perhaps most controversially, the role of women in the movement. Unlike other historians who have attributed the rise of Hasidism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to either social, political, or economic crises, Rapoport-Albert refuses to ignore the spiritual dimensions and efforts on the part Hasidism to renew religious practice. While others see a strict periodization in which there was a self-conscious founding and institutionalization, here we are given the sense of an organic pietistic movement informed by the Kabbalistic tradition but open to society rather than ascetic, and nurtured by a productive opposition. Moreover, rather than conceding to the common characterization of Hasidism as a folkish and populist movement, Hasidic Studies complicates this picture by uncovering a Hasidism that was shaped around its charismatic leaders. Throughout, the question of sources plays a central role, and rather than ignore as biased the attempts of Hasidim to write their own history, Rapoport-Albert excavates from these documents crucial evidence embedded unconsciously or matter-of-factly.

The second half of the book attacks the apologetic representations of Hasidism as either egalitarian or proto-feminist – as giving women a new sense of “spiritual agency”—by showing them to be excluded from leadership as a rule and a family life divorced from traditional structures. Often Hasidism has been cast as a continuation of early modern heretical movements, particularly the messianic movement that arose around Sabbatai Zevi in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, Rapoport-Albert argues that Hasidism was in fact a retreat towards stricter traditional values, particularly regarding the prominent position given to women in the Sabbatean movement and its sexual mores.

In Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbtai Zevi 1666 – 1816, a study of the life and afterlife of the messianic movement that arose around the messianic figure of Sabbtai Zevi, Rapoport-Albert sees female spirituality as its hallmark. Here women act as a key to the movement as a whole and in understanding its relationship to normative Judaism. The book suggests a movement with a feminist-like agenda in which women play an integral part of the messianic community—as leaders, prophets, and spiritual activists—in its reading into the nature of heresy, mysticism, and community in the early modern period.

The two books are intertwined, not only thematically and as foils to one another, but by a methodological sophistication and sensitivity as well; Professor Rapoport-Albert presents a perspective deeply embedded in primary sources, that shines new light on modern Jewish history.

Ada Rapoport-Albert is Emerita Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London.


Moses Lapin is a graduate student in the departments of History and Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he sometimes wonders about the nature of political structures in the local cat community.

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