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Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi 1666–1816, by Ada Rapoport-Albert, translated by Deborah Greniman. Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2011. 386 pp. $64.50.
Scholars have long debated whether Hasidism was the heir of Sabbateanism or, as the dialectical response to Sabbateanism, its product. Unique for its focus on questions of gender and sexuality rather than mystical union and the tzadik, Women and the Messianic Heresy sides with those who contend Hasidism was more a reaction to Sabbatean excesses than a direct continuation. The body of the book and an appendix promote the thesis that an egalitarian attitude to women was central to Sabbateanism from the messianic outbreak of Shabbatai Tzevi in 1666 to the death of Eve Frank in 1816, whereas the introduction and conclusion claim that Hasidism, reacting to the trauma of Sabbateanism, went beyond traditional Judaism in its exclusion of women from the spiritual enterprise.
While the study’s focus is novel and thus a welcome addition to the literature on Sabbateanism, Hasidism, and Jewish messianism, neither the argument of the book nor the evidence presented vary much from what Gershom Scholem published on gender and sexuality in the Sabbatean and Frankist movements. Indeed, well over twenty years ago Rapoport-Albert herself wrote an article contesting the notion that Hasidism offered women equality in religious life, countering that within Judaism only Sabbateanism promoted a vision of gender-egalitarianism. Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi is a revised and fully elaborated articulation of this claim, the author now contending that Sabbateanism offered a complete reconceptualization of women’s status, indeed, the empowerment and liberation of women.
Uncritically quoting Sabbatean, anti-Sabbatean, and outside observer accounts mainly as they appear in Scholem’s published works or other Hebrew translations, Rapoport-Albert argues that Sabbatean messianism envisioned and partially realized a gender revolution in Judaism, offering a radical departure in understandings of female spirituality. The vision incorporated an egalitarian and a libertine trend that both overturned gender boundaries. Sabbatean antinomianism’s stress on faith rather than positive commandments offered Jewish women their first opportunity to partake in religious life as equals to men, even as celibate holy virgins, for they were no longer viewed as merely material beings. Open transgression of the negative commandments also established parity of the sexes and gave women a central role in religious life, for these prohibitions centered on the body, and promoting previously prohibited sexual relations—especially adultery—offered women, particularly prophetesses and the wives of leading Frankist families, an active role. The author does not address how Frankist father-daughter incest could have been liberating for the female sex.
In teleological fashion Rapoport-Albert depicts a continuous and ever-radicalizing “egalitarian agenda,” although the evidence is more suggestive than conclusive, as the author admits. It begins with Shabbatai Tzevi’s pledge to annul the original sin and the abrogration of women’s punishment of childbirth and subservience to men. Women would henceforth be liberated from physical suffering and inferiority; they would be free to engage in spiritual pursuits. Shabbatai Tzevi’s calling women to the reading of the Torah was a concrete expression of this pledge. This egalitarian revolution was carried out most fully at Jacob Frank’s court. Despite the fact that Jacob Frank offered a continually evolving messianic approach over the course of half a century, the author takes Words of the Lord to represent the sum total of his thinking. According to Words of the Lord, men and women had equal spiritual value, and this was realized in equal numbers of male and female disciples, considered “sisters” and “brothers” of the same family. They undertook periods of chastity, and separately performed the same rituals in parallel, interspersed with having ritualized sexual intercourse. Frank’s most original contribution to messianism was conceiving of the manifestation of the feminine powers of the divine in a human female. He claimed the messianic redeemer was a woman, the divine Maiden, embodied in his virgin daughter Eve. This also broke with earlier Sabbateans, whose wives had had redemptive power only by virtue of marriage to the messiah; Eve was destined to redeem the world in her own right by her own power. The study culminates in the appendix with the reproduction of “Something for the female sex” written by a Prague Frankist in 1800, presented as an open call for the sexual and social liberation of women. Reading this document the reader realizes that Rapoport-Albert mainly had late Frankism in mind when depicting a homogenous Sabbatean expression across the centuries.
The author argues that the Sabbatean egalitarian tendency was seen by its opponents as sexual depravity and evoked a violent response deligitimizing any public display of female spirituality. Sabbatean calls for the liberation of women were never fully realized and ultimately silenced by the erection of impermeable gender barriers in Orthodox Judaism and especially in Hasidism. Hasidism’s call of the sanctification of the profane might have been expected to include women’s participation. Yet that possibility was quickly squelched. Recensions of biographies of Hasidism’s founder, the Ba’al Shem Tov, display a progressive erasure of a central character who recognizes his holiness, a woman closely akin to a Sabbatean prophetess. Hasidic hagiographical literature is full of exorcisms of women and girls, who in an earlier century would have been Sabbatean prophetesses. The mass movement centering on the celibate Maid of Ludmir, who shares some characteristics of Sabbatean gender parity and the independent messianic figure of Eve, was quickly suppressed and forgotten. The reader will not soon forget Women and the Messianic Heresy, for it is filled with stunning narrative accounts of what all branches of Sabbateanism seem to have uniquely offered Jewish women.
Marc David Baer
University of California, Irvine