Maid of Ludomir

This 19th Century Hasidic woman served as an unofficial rabbi.

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While her popular following grew, the male leadership of the movement disapproved, viewing her activities as a pathological manifestation of the powers of evil and impurity. Pressure was put on the Maid to abandon the practice of Tzaddikism and to resume her rightful female role in marriage. Following the personal intervention of Mordecai of Chernobyl (1770-1837)--the most eminent tzaddik of the region--she reluctantly agreed to marry, but the marriage was never consummated and soon ended in divorce. She married again, but divorced once more, apparently remaining a "maiden" to the end of her life.

However, her marriages did have the desired effect of putting an abrupt end to her career as a Rebbe. She eventually immigrated to the Holy Land, a remote corner of nineteenth-century Hasidism. Here, as is almost certainly confirmed by archival documentation from the 1860s and 1870s, she spent the last years of her life in Jerusalem as a childless widow affiliated to the Volhynian Hasidic kolel (a group of Ashkenazi Jews in Palestine, from one country or district, whose members received funds from their countries of origin).

Historical Significance

The Maid of Ludomir was exceptional among the cluster of women reputed to have exercised charismatic authority within the Hasidic world of their day. Unlike most of them, she was not related by family ties--as mother, daughter, sister or widow-- to any of the illustrious male Zaddikim. She could not, therefore, draw on the associative authority which some Jewish women were able to derive from their connection to distinguished male relatives; her powers were entirely her own.

Nevertheless, while her career is often celebrated as a pioneering "feminist" success, the very terms in which the Maid tradition has been preserved present her case as an instructive failure. It serves precisely to reinforce, rather than undermine, the gender boundaries she attempted to cross.

The phenomenon of a spiritually empowered holy virgin, so familiar to the wider Christian environment of Hasidism, was alien to the Jewish tradition, which had always prized, albeit within limits, the practice of sexual abstinence by some men, while greeting with suspicion and ascribing no value to the adoption of celibacy by women. The anomaly of the celibate female Rebbe was therefore perceived as an aberration of nature and a social deviation which the Hasidic leadership was quick to suppress. Only in the 20th century, under the impact of modern feminism and the egalitarian elements of Zionist ideology, could the Maid of Ludomir tradition present itself as an inspirational model for national revival and proof of the alleged eradication of gender boundaries in Hasidism.

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Ada Rapoport-Albert

Ada Rapoport-Albert is Reader in Jewish History and head of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at UCL, London University. Her research is focused on Jewish spirituality and the history of the Jewish mystical tradition. Her forthcoming book is Female Bodies and Male Souls: Asceticism, Mysticism, and Gender in the Jewish Tradition.