Hasidism: An Elite Men’s Club

Mothers, wives, daughters of Hasidim, but never Hasidim. How much room is there in the history of Hasidism for women? Professor Marcin Wodziński from the Taube Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Wrocław proves that Hasidism was a religious brotherhood based solely on the participation of men. From a modern perspective, we strain to see women where they were not, assign them an important role that they have never had, and make rules out of exceptions.


Katarzyna Andersz: I met with you to talk about women in Hasidism, but it seems we can’t really talk about them in those terms.

Marcin Wodziński: The idea of women in Hasidism is a popular construct based on two erroneous assumptions: first, that there were women in the Hasidic movement, and second, that they allegedly enjoyed a relatively privileged position in relation to women from other groups in the traditional Jewish community.


So how does one talk about women inside the Hasidic movement?

You can’t talk about women in Hasidism because there were none historically, at least not until the twentieth century, when a process of rapid fundamentalization and modernization began after the First World War. Historically, Hasidic women are a figment of our imagination.


This construct has, however, been in use since the 1920s when the first study on women by Shmuel Abba Horodezky appeared in the United States.

Horodezky came from the Hasidic world, but he was no longer a Hasid by the time his book came out. His perspective on the role of women was quite romantic and idealized.


His perspective was radically different a decade earlier when he wrote for the Jewish periodical Evreiskaia Starina in Russia. At that point, however, he had not yet been exposed to German-Jewish feminism and was not yet involved in the Zionist movement.  In short, he had not yet been influenced by what could be considered a modern, egalitarian way of thinking.

Horodezky’s interpretation stems from a radically faulty construction of the source base and erroneous methodological assumptions. He drew conclusions from what were basically coincidences and exceptional cases, such as women in the role of Hasidic leaders, in order to justify his own ideological assumptions. His work perfectly illustrates the compensatory function of his own historiography. Professor Moshe Rosman describes it in English as ‘metooism,’ from the words me too. Metooism was an apologetic approach present in early feminist criticism, which aimed to emphasize that women also participated in all the important historical processes. Thus if men were Hasidim, women also had to be Hasidim.


You could argue at least one woman did become a Hasid. I’m referring to Hanna Rachel Werbermacher, the Maid of Ludmir, who enjoyed a position similar to that of a tsadik.

We should never, when writing history, draw conclusions about the status of ordinary people based on the analysis of elite social groups. The Werbermacher case does not support the thesis about the presence of women in Hasidism suggested by Horodezky, but in fact disproves his thesis as it deals with something that was definitely atypical. Most importantly, when Werbermacher became a Hasidic leader, she deliberately and demonstratively crossed the gender border. She acted like a man; she was a man. As a Hasidic leader, she could not adhere to the gender roles assigned to a woman.


But she was reprimanded.

Werbermacher’s story is fascinating. A young girl managed to become someone akin to a tsadik thanks to her undoubted personal charisma. Women and men made pilgrimages to her prayer room. The traditional Hasidic leadership of the Chernobyl dynasty, however, reacted quickly and forced her to abandon her role and get married. Their reaction is the best proof that women had no place in Hasidism.


Then what happened?

According to the story, her forced marriage was not consummated: the poor fellow was said to be afraid of the holy woman. After the divorce, the story repeated itself and Werbermacher was forced to marry again, but she became a widow very soon. Then she traveled to the Land of Israel and a prayer group gathered around her. She was buried on the Mount of Olives and her grave is a place of pilgrimage for religious women until today. If you can speak about Hasidic feminism at all, then it is this group that meets at Werbermacher’s that represents it, that recognizes her as its leader, and as a role model. The role of women in Hasidism is drastically different in the twenty-first century than it was in the nineteenth century.


What, then, was the relation between a typical woman and Hasidism in the 19th and early 20th centuries?

In order to grasp this relation, we first have to reject the idea of Hasidism as a sect. A great deal of the thinking on the role of women is based on an unconscious projection of the analytical categories of a sect onto the social relations found in Hasidism. According to the popular image of a sect, all family members belong to its structure, even if they are assigned different roles. The sect also puts limits on social contacts with the outside world, except for contacts of a missionary nature or those that are necessary for its functioning. Most social relations are carried out within the sect. When an individual is the only person in their family to join a sect, they are generally required to cut all previous ties. Projecting this line of thought onto Hasidism would mean that if the head of the family was a Hasid, then his wife and children must have been Hasidim as well. That was not the case.


This was evident in the fact that there were mixed marriages between Hasidic men and women from non-Hasidic families and vice versa.

These were not mixed marriages. In the nineteenth century, such relationships were the norm. Hasidic and non-Hasidic families voluntarily and regularly arranged marriages between their children. No one expected a Hasid to marry the daughter of a Hasid, and vice versa.


So how do we define Hasidism so as to correctly grasp its attitude toward women?

In the movement’s classical period, up until the First World War, the closest analogy for Hasidism would be that of a religious brotherhood. If we think about Hasidism as a fraternity, then it becomes clear that if men are members, women are not necessarily members. And there is no contradiction there, no tension. Women may even be proud that their husbands are members of a fraternity, and are supportive but are not themselves part of the brotherhood.


Because they are not included in the rituals?

The fact that men pray in a Hasidic shtibl (prayer house) while the women are in the synagogue does not matter at all. There is no conflict here: men simply take part in different but equally legitimate forms of Jewish religiosity. A Hasid would have no qualms about praying in a synagogue with misnagdim, opponents of Hasidism. This is yet another argument  that Hasidism is not a sect.


So what was the relationship between women and Hasidism?

It was not a relationship of belonging; it was a relationship of a different sort and we do not have to search for women in Hasidism in order to define it. We have numerous examples of traditional communities throughout history in which women were excluded from certain institutions, but there were other forms of association. Identification does not have to be complete and abiding; it can, for instance, be limited to support of only certain selected aspects, and can be different for each woman. There are dozens of examples in nineteenth-century memoirs of wives of Hasidim who were completely indifferent to the form of their husbands’ religiosity, or, on the contrary, of women who found Hasidism appealing and urged their husbands to become Hasidim.


To use a simple analogy, you could think of Hasidim as a male club whose members regularly played bridge over a glass of whiskey, and some wives approved while others did not.

There were many wives for whom it made no difference as long as their husbands did not bother them at home. Yecheskiel Kotik wrote in his memoir that his father used to invite his Hasidic friends home to socialize in the kitchen, and his mother Sara ignored them because it really did not matter to her at all.

I would not assume, however, that the relationship of women with Hasidism was completely individual, and that every woman defined it differently. That was true to some extent, but all in all, there were definitely certain dominant types of relationships. One very popular type was the pilgrimage of women to Hasidic courts to seek help and blessings from the tsadik.


Was it fairly easy for women to actually get to a court and meet with a tsadik?

The largest Hasidic courts were very crowded. To get to the tsadik, you had to wait, sometimes for days. It was a way of building prestige. If someone left the line, it meant that they were not determined enough to meet with the tsadik. Of course, not everyone had to stand in line; some people were allowed to see the tsadik without waiting either because they had high social standing, or were very learned, or related to someone important, and the same principle applied to women.


Was a tsadik’s image in any way affected if he was known to meet with women?

The entire image of the tsadik rested on a restrictive religiosity, on a demonstrative separation from all things feminine. Thus a tsadik’s prestige was automatically diminished by the presence of women at his court. For the most part, petty wandering tsadikim, known as eyniklekh or “grandchildren”, accepted female petitioners to deal with their problems and requests. The term, in this case, was slightly pejorative because it meant that their fame was based on their ancestry and not on the greatness of their own deeds. They traveled from town to town, and from village to village, making a living from their alleged miracles. Their status was low enough that helping women was not a problem. The great tsadikim could afford not to deal with women, which does not mean that there weren’t exceptions. Such unprecedented meetings could even raise a tsadik’s prestige: if he agreed to meet a woman, it meant that she was no ordinary woman, but the Shekhina, the divine presence of God.


An interesting explanation.

It appears in a Hasidic tale about Tsadik Aizyk Taub, who received gentlemen callers, Hungarian officers, accompanied by a woman in fashionable European dress. The Hasidic interpretation was that she was not just a woman, she was the Shekhina. I don’t think it was a flimsy rationalization, but actually a fairly natural mechanism revealing the reasoning of the Hasidim. If a tsadik consistently refused to receive women, and then suddenly made an exception, it must have meant something out of the ordinary, something with a hidden meaning. This is precisely how Hasidic leaders bolstered their charisma.


One cannot overlook the role of women as sponsors.

Hasidism could not have developed without the support of donors, among whom there were women; this was basically the only public role they could play. The most famous female sponsor was Temerl Sonnenberg, the wife of Berek Sonnenberg, who supported, among others, Hasidim from central Poland, including the court in Przysucha, tsadik Yitzhak of Warka, and other tsadikim from the school of Przysucha.


What exactly was her role?

If you believe the stories, she appointed tsadik Yitzhak of Warka the administrator of her estate, which provided him with a living for some time. She met with tsadikim who had found themselves in difficult straits to try and help them, meeting with them at the market in Gdansk, or at the market in Leipzig, but generally not at court. She also supported Hasidic political activity, or shtadlanut from the Hebrew word. Some of the events described in these Hasidic stories are actually confirmed by archival government documents. We won’t find evidence that Temerl Sonnenberg gave money to tsadikim, but the documents do confirm that she sponsored various Hasidic and non-Hasidic initiatives. Interestingly, she also supported Christian enterprises. When her husband died, Stanisław Staszic (a famous Polish politician and intellectual) tried to confiscate his property for the Polish government, but she succesfully blocked it. Sonnenberg was evidently a woman of valor who outsmarted Staszic.


How did the Hasidic world react to women sponsors?

Temerl Sonnenberg is mentioned in over a dozen Hasidic stories, and most of the references have an ambivalent and neutral tone. Hasidim had a serious problem accepting that a woman could wield significant influence on Hasidism and on a tsadik. The fact that she was the donor and he was the beneficiary and thus dependent on her was not well seen.


Was she reined in like the Maid of Ludmir?

There is a story about how Simcha Bunem of Przysucha, a well-known tsadik, was completely penniless at the Leipzig fair. He was so broke he couldn’t even leave his room for fear of crossing paths with the innkeeper. Then Temerl Sonnenberg arrived on the scene, paid all his bills, helped him, and he gave her his dirty laundry to wash. On the one hand, this story was of course in praise of her charitable works, on the other hand the tsadik’s gesture made it clear that her place was with his dirty underwear.


The tsadik had to save face, of course, or at least somehow demonstrate his superiority.

No matter whether it was true or not, the story tells us how the Hasidic world viewed female charity. Hasidism could not approve of help that was so significant that it turned relations between the donor and the recipient upside down. Something had to be done to restore the tsadik his rightful status. He was, after all, the absolute source of all the good that flowed from God through him to the whole world. Temerl Sonnenberg could only be of service to the tsadik, who had to be the authority and in control of social relations.


You mentioned earlier that they generally shunned femininity.

This stems from the ideology of Hasidism, which projected a traditionally Kabbalistic image on women as being in part identified with the demonic world. Women were regarded more as temptation than bearers of traditional Jewish values. Although this sort of reasoning is quite common in Hasidism, I would hesitate to draw conclusions about the relationship between Hasidism and women from this attitude. The ideological layer, in my opinion, did not necessarily affect the reality of social relations.


How could a woman’s relationship with her Hasidic husband be good if she was considered a demon?

Demonization did not concern a specific woman and her relationship, but femininity in general. At the same time, however, domestic tranquility and respect for one’s wife were fundamental values in the world of Hasidism.


Hasidim spent a lot of time in their own circles, in their prayer houses, at the courts of their tsadikim. Everything that was joyful in their lives happened without the participation of their wives.

The fact that the men were never at home, and that the women were eternally alone and without any support, was a traditional criticism directed against Hasidism by the maskilim, followers of the Jewish Enlightenment.  But it was applicable not only to Hasidism. The vast majority of husbands in traditional Jewish families spent their time outside the home, earning money as merchants, peddlers, and traveling craftsmen. They often returned home only for high holidays. The difference between the Hasidim and non-Hasidim was that the former did not always come home for the holidays, but instead went to their tsadik. This does not mean that they never spent time with their families and that their families were radically different from other Jewish families.


So a Hasid’s wife was not worse off than the wife of a non-Hasid?

I do not assume this, and it is not something that we can prove beyond a doubt. Shaul Stampfer conducted quantitative studies of fertility among Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews in which he did not observe any differences between the two groups. Hasidim did not, with all certainty, avoid their wives. In my opinion, we can speculate that in a sense, the absence of Hasidic husbands during certain holidays and Sabbaths gave women relatively more power in domestic culture and rituals. In non-Hasidic families, the men were responsible for the ceremonies connected with the celebration of holidays. In Hasidic families, women had these responsibilities, which paradoxically gave them more power.


So they also had greater authority at home?

What they had was more autonomy rather than authority. The men were absent, so they had greater autonomy in making decisions. This is also another way of thinking about the relationship between women and Hasidism.


Besides their allegedly greater autonomy, was there anything else that distinguished Hasidic wives from non-Hasidic wives?

Definitely. The fact is that if the husband was a Hasid, then the entire family had certain obligations and rituals related to this association. Regardless of whether a wife approved of her husband’s Hasidism or not, she also had to adhere to a number of principles that his association required of him.


What sort of principles exactly?

Simple, everyday principles related to running a home. For example, the Hasid wife had to buy meat from a Hasidic butcher, because her husband would not eat meat from any other source. There are also some elements related to customs, ritual, and halakhic interpretations that were different for Hasidim. One example: matzo shmura – according to Hasidim, matzo soaked in the water becomes non-kosher, so the women had to take care not to put the matzo balls into the broth. Another thing: Hasidim observed the rule that the right half of their frock coat had to overlap the left side, and not the other way round, so their wives had to be sure to sew the buttons on right. We could argue that these are inconsequential examples insofar as they did not affect family relations, but women had to be aware of and follow these rules because they were part of their husbands’ ritual. There are more examples. Wives could not sit with their husbands in the tent during Sukkot, because, for example, the Hasidim in Galicia were not allowed to sit there with women. According to Hasidic customs, men were never allowed to sleep in the same bed with a woman, which could obviously affect intimate relations between them. Wives were not Hasidim, but the fact that they could not sleep with their husbands in one bed must have meant something. It is difficult to say whether their relationship was better or worse because of this restriction, but it certainly affected them in some way.


How did you search for women in historical sources on Hasidism, since, apart from a few exceptions, we have established that the women were just not there?

Until the mid-nineteenth century, there are only scattered references in official documents, but later we start to find more sources in the form of memoirs. They do not necessarily have to be diaries written by women from Hasidic families. On the basis of the descriptions by women who observed Hasidism from various perspectives, one can infer how the authors defined themselves, and how they defined other women in relation to Hasidism. The vast majority of Hasidic stories, another source of information, are about men. However, if we read these stories closely, we can discern the role that women played in them.


So you just need to dig them out first.

Women – and this is not just the case when it comes to Hasidism – generally appear on the margins of whatever was the main subject in primary source materials from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. In feminist studies, one speaks of “reading against the sources,” which means looking for what is hidden in what an author does not intend to mention or only mentions as an aside. We try to coax out what the author avoided mentioning, whether intentionally or not. Every source is in some sense coincidental, and the task of the historian is to collect a sufficiently large database so as to construct a credible narrative from many random, short and marginal references.


Prof. Marcin Wodziński devotes a separate chapter in the book Hasidism. Key Questions, published by Oxford University Press in July 2018, to the analysis of the issues surrounding relations between women and Hasidism.

Translation from Polish: dr Barbara Pendzich