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ERASED FROM TRADITION: THE MAIDEN OF LUDMIR

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By Eric Maroney

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The Montréal Review, March 2013

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Traditional Judaism severely curtailed the role women could play in the arena of religious duties. Women were viewed as necessarily limited by biology, as Jewish law considered women unclean during menstruation and for a certain time following childbirth. In fact, anyone even touching such a woman was considered unclean.

The demands of nursing and childrearing also played a role in exempting women from the time-bound nature of Jewish religious duties. A woman could not pray at specific times if she had to nurse an infant, nor could she spend a long period in study of the Torah along with the demands of child care. Judaism restricted women's religious functions by codifying into law and custom the idea of their essential earthy nature and powerful biological duties. In such a system, it was extremely difficult for women to become holy people on par with men.

Despite this, women have sometimes taken the role of saints. Historical records are few, and religious traditions, disseminated by men, generally had little interest in recording the deeds of these women or preserving their writings. Women such as Beruriah (2nd century C.E.), Asnat Bazani (1590-1670), Dulcie of Worms (1170-1196), Francesa Sarah (16th century), and Hannah Rachel of Ludmir (1815-1905) were powerful religious visionaries and community leaders. But compared to their male equivalents, we know almost nothing about them.

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Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, more often called the Maiden of Ludmir, was born in the early 19th century in the town of Ludmir, Ukraine. Until the recent discovery of previously unknown documents related to her, very little was known about her life. The traditions about the Maiden of Ludmir were not written, but before the Second World War her memory was alive in Ludmir. Almost everything known about her was from memory and oral tradition.

We know that Hannah Rochel was the only child of a rich merchant in Ludmir. Even before her birth, her life was proclaimed miraculous. Her father traveled to a wonder rabbi when his wife was pregnant, praying that he may have a son. He was informed that he would instead have a daughter, but this daughter, he was told, would have powers normally reserved for men. The prophecy was fulfilled. For from a very early age, Hannah remained in her room, studying holy texts and praying. She was a gifted child, and the daughter of a wealthy merchant who could afford to educate her far beyond the norm for girls at the time.

Early on, Hannah Rochel began to hear voices and see visions. At first, the family kept this hidden from the community, but following the death of her mother at age 12, Hannah Rochel fell ill and nearly died, and the nature of her religious calling could no longer be hidden. Because her visions and her illness were intimately tied together, soon all of Ludmir knew of her special gifts.

 

Other tales suggest that the Maiden of Ludmir was engaged to be married, and only after her physical collapse and refusal to wed did she begin her religious life. All during the period of her recuperation from the illness, she saw visions and heard voices. When she awoke, she informed her father that the soul of a man had entered her body. She began to practice male religious duties: she wore tefflin , or phylacteries, on her arm and head, and wrapped herself in a tallit , or fringed prayer shawl.

After her father died, she inherited his money, and was legally free to live as she pleased. She eschewed marriage, despite great pressure from the merchant class and rabbis of the town. During that time she began her public career. No longer praying in private, she constructed her own house of study, and held court like a Hasidic rabbi. She attracted followers, who visited to eat a symbolic meal at her table and hear her interpret Torah, dispense advice, and provide blessings. In fact, she fulfilled many of the traditional duties of the Hassidic rabbi of the nineteenth century. She was a folk healer, using a variety of prayers and herbal medicines to cure illness. She performed exorcisms, expelling troublesome spirits from afflicted people. And there is even evidence that she was a preacher who traveled to nearby towns, speaking to crowds in public squares and marketplaces.

The Maiden of Ludmir also practiced celibacy. This is not a traditional Jewish value, but by refraining from marriage and having children, she could legally maintain her independence and fulfill her religious duties. Many Chasidic men married and engaged in a type of partial celibacy, spending long amounts of time in the study house or in the court of their rabbis. In this way, they distanced themselves from family and social responsibility, which enabled them to concentrate on the study of the Torah. Hannah Rochel was unable to engage in this kind of limited celibacy. For her, avoidance of marriage was the only way to keep her freedom.

She developed a following among poor, working class Jews of both sexes. At this time Hasidism were increasingly dynastic and worldly. The rebbe, or rabbi of an Hasidic court, lived in a grand style. He was considered the human link to the divine world, and was treated as religious royalty. This was not the original vision of the Chasidic movement, where the leaders and the rank and file were poor. Also in contrast to contemporary rabbis, the Maiden of Ludmir was committed to maintaining the equalitarianism of the original Hasidim. She was not from a family with Hasidic connections, she did not hold a large and prosperous court, and most importantly, did not accept donations from her followers. She was more like the masters of the previous two generations of Chasidism, who had lived in poverty, obscurity, and asceticism.

 

At first, the Hasidic authorities in Ludmir considered her a safely-ignored oddity. But eventually, as she assumed a more public role, they put pressure on her to marry and assume the "normal" life of a Jewish woman. Eventually, the authorities won, and Hannah Rochel was forced into marriage. But soon after the ritual was performed, she requested a divorce. Some claim that the marriage was never consummated.

She was granted the divorce, and tried once more to resume her life as a female rabbi and communal leader. But after her marriage and divorce, her standing among the Jewish community in Ludmir declined. The very fact that she had gone along with the plan suggested to some that she was in reality simply a woman and not, as many people had thought, a woman with the soul of a man. In spite of her reduced status, she remained in Ludmir for another thirty years, before immigrating to Palestine when she was sixty. Why a woman of sixty, which was an advanced age in the nineteenth century, would choose the difficult and arduous trip to the Holy Land and a strenuous life in Ottoman Palestine, has puzzled generations of scholars.

Nathaniel Deutsch, in his intriguing work on the Maiden of Ludmir, found two historically verifiable historical documents which point to the Maiden of Ludmir's presence in Palestine in the late nineteenth century. She is listed on census documents of widows, which was perhaps in fact a catch-all category for older and unmarried --- and only presumably widowed --- women. But interestingly, she is called by the census taker, a religious official from the area of Jerusalem where she lived, a female rabbi and holy person. This suggests the Maiden of Ludmir may once again have enjoyed an official standing as a religious leader in Jerusalem some three decades after the scandal of her sham marriage.

 

In Jerusalem, the Maiden of Ludmir fulfilled many roles. As a post-menopausal woman in Palestine, she joined a large group of women living in the Holy Land after they completed their obligations as wives and mothers. To the Hasidic religious establishment, such women no longer posed a threat. They had done their duty as Jewish women.

The Maiden of Ludmir performed many religious duties, including healing and supplicatory prayers on behalf of the sick, and leading women on pilgrimages to Rachel's Tomb. She also acted as a professional mourner, creating spontaneous prayers and supplications for the benefit of the dead. There are also strong indications that the Maiden of Ludmir resumed her role as a Hasidic sage in the Holy Land. Her visions and special spiritual abilities seem to have returned in the Holy Land, and she developed a devoted group of followers. She continued to have independent means, and did not live on donations from abroad like much of the Jewish community in nineteenth century Palestine --- which further increased her prestige.

 

Despite the documented evidence of her existence in Jerusalem, much of the information we have about the Maiden in the Holy Land comes from recollections and memoirs. This is by its nature of questionable provenance, and it also paints a contradictory picture of her exploits. Some sources claim she was widely respected in Palestine. This is supported by the two entries in the late nineteenth century census, where she is called a female rabbi and a holy woman. The religious authorities apparently held her in high esteem, or at least recognized her standing in the community. Stories were recounted about her death and funeral, which was attended by most of religious Jerusalem. But Nathaniel Deutsch, in his work on the Maiden of Ludmir, could find no evidence that such a funeral took place around the purported time of her death. She is said to be buried on the Mount of Olives, but researcher Nathaniel Deutsch was unable to prove with complete certainty the location of her grave, and one tradition even claims she is buried in Ludmir, Ukraine.

The lack of firm historical data on the Maiden of Ludmir is not surprising. In the Hasidic tradition, oral stories about great teachers and rabbis often circulated long before they were put into writing. Most of the early leaders of the Chasidic movement --- and even its founder, the Baal Shem Tov --- did not write down their teachings; their stories and words were recorded by their followers. Even so, enough tales circulated about the early figures of Hasidism to enshrine them in a robust pantheon of Hasidic saints. Eventually, most of these were written and widely circulated. This is not the case with the Maiden of Ludmir. There is no significant hagiographic or saintly literature about her life and exploits. She fell through the cracks in the history of Hasidic lore, simply because she was a woman.

Without a formal system for women with religious inclinations beyond those of most wives and mothers, Judaism had no outlets for women who wished to go beyond these roles. Jewish history has venerated female religious figures, but very few women could successfully make the leap from the kitchen, bedroom, or nursery, to the male-dominated world of sacred texts, organized prayer, mystical study, and communal leadership. And those who did, like the Maiden of Ludmir, were often relegated to a sideline of religious history, and near total obscurity.

This is the real tragedy of the Maiden of Ludmir: We know so little known about her life, yet modern people are on a quest to find a commanding Jewish woman in the Chasidic tradition. So hearsay, rumor, and stories that cannot be verified by outside means are accepted as fact. Much of what has been written about her is conjecture presented as fact, so people get the Maiden of Ludmir whom they seek. In the end, the Maiden of Ludmir is not only erased from the Jewish tradition, but also built up to suit our own needs. In both cases, we fail to get at the real woman and her work.

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This article is part of a larger work-in-progress Eric Maroney is writing about folk and popular religion called Great Tradition, Little Tradition: Popular Religion in the West and East. Please contact the author for the sources of this article: em75@cornell.edu.

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Eric Maroney is the author of two books of non-fiction, Religious Syncretism (2006) and The Other Zions (2010).  His fiction has appeared in Our Stories, The MacGuffin, ARCH, Segue, The Literary Review, Eclectica, Per Contra, Forge, PiF, The Montreal Review, Superstition Review, and Stickman Review.  He has an MA in Philosophy from Boston University, and lives in Ithaca New York with his wife and two children.  More of his work can be found on his web page: http://www.arts.cornell.edu/ econ/em75/

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