Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Hasidic women represent a unique face of American Judaism. As Hasidim–ultra-Orthodox Jews belonging to sectarian communities, worshiping and working as followers of specific rebbes–they are set apart from assimilated, mainstream American Jews. But as women in a subculture primarily defined by male religious studies, rituals, and legal obligations, they are also set apart from Hasidic men, whose recognizable styles of dress and yeshiva in-gatherings have long presented a masculine standard for outsiders’ understanding of Hasidism.
History of Hasidism
Hasidism, as a radical movement of Judaism, emerged from the teachings of Israel ben Eliezer (the Ba’al Shem Tov, or Besht, 1698-1760) in eighteenth-century Poland, spreading throughout Eastern Europe and giving rise to a variety of regional sects. These Hasidim, or “pious ones,” in Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Romania, fused meticulous devotion to Jewish practice with a joyful and mystical expression of faith, often expressed through male farbrengens (ritual gatherings of a rebbe and his followers for an inspiring evening of speeches, eating, song, and dance).
Hasidic teachings suggest that even the most routine aspects of daily life can reveal a spiritual essence if approached fervently. By concentrating religious intentions toward all acts, some Hasidic followers hope to hasten the coming of the Messiah and thus end the earthly persecution and suffering of all Jews.
The emphasis on a religious education for Hasidic boys developed into a network of distinctive Eastern European yeshivas, producing more Hasidic scholars and rabbis to serve far-flung communities. Yet throughout the nineteenth century, women and girls were never expected to move past a basic literacy in daily and holiday prayers. That certain women functioned as respected scholars or mystical rebbetzins (female spiritual leaders or teachers), in the movement’s early decades is hotly contested by Jewish historians today.