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 18th-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.
Education of Girls
Only in the early twentieth century, when it became clear that young Hasidic women hungry for literacy were pursuing education through secular state schools (or the forbidden movements of Zionism and socialism), did Hasidic education for girls develop in Eastern Europe, for example, in the Bais Ya’akov school system, founded by Sarah Schenirer in Poland. This educational awakening of Hasidic women not incidentally paralleled feminist movements in prewar Western Europe.
Tragically, the new Hasidic girls’ academies served only one generation before their destruction in the Holocaust. By the time that agents of the Nazi Holocaust swept entire Hasidic villages into death camps, many Hasidim had already fled to transplanted communities in North America and Israel. From the 1920s to 1950s, a steady stream of displaced Hasidic leaders, followers, activists, and refugees flowed into low-income Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Jerusalem. Postwar Hasidism quickly flourished, rebuilding each devastated community of separate and scholarly lineage. Today, descendants of the Lubavitcher, Satmar, Belzer, Ger, Bobover and other sects populate Hasidic communities on several continents.
Women have served as important agents of faith and family life in the transmission of Hasidic belief to new generations of followers, their public roles increasing with educational experience. Although Hasidic sects in America continue to differ in the work and educational opportunities permitted to women, without question one of the most profound postwar changes overall has been schooling for girls. The rapid expansion of Hasidic parochial schools and girls’ yeshivas, however, has not meant that women have joined the ranks of scholarly men as religious authority figures rendering interpretation of Jewish law. Girls’ schools primarily serve to protect Hasidic daughters from the secular influences of the “outside” society, rather than introducing them to the advanced Talmudic curriculum typical of boys’ education.
Identification of Hasidic Women
In the United States today, the Hasidic male, in black coat, black hat, tzitzit fringes, beard, and sidecurls, is easily recognized today as a symbol of ultra-Orthodox Judaism and Talmud scholarship. Visually, he summarizes an ongoing commitment to religious practices once confined to the Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe. His yeshiva training and devotion to daily piety make him a “holy man” in our secular society, although some more assimilated Jews find the Hasidic life-style anachronistic or embarrassing.
Far less visible is the contemporary Hasidic woman, though no less devout. While her secular education is limited to high school and perhaps some vocational training, she is often a family breadwinner, working outside the home–and this is considered perfectly appropriate, if such work frees a scholarly husband for study or pays for children’s yeshiva tuition. Economic roles for Hasidic women include shopkeeping, teaching in girls’ religious schools, secretarial and computer jobs, and work with a specific Jewish purpose: for instance, matchmaking, and catering simhas (weddings and other celebrations).
Outside their own communities, Hasidic women are not as identifiable as their male counterparts. Their dress is modest, one truly distinguishing feature being the sheytl (wig) or tikhel (scarf) worn by all married women. Indeed, in styled wigs some Hasidic women look far more glamorous than their assimilated Jewish counterparts. (Consequently, while all ultra-Orthodox women cover their hair, unique to Hasidim is the practice among some women to wear a small scarf on top of the wig, to prevent the wig from itself becoming a possible breach of modesty.)
The laws of tzniut (modesty) are strictly observed, including monthly visits to the mikveh (the ritual immersion bath required after menstruation). Hasidic customs of modesty also prohibit mixed social events, mixed swimming at summer vacation retreats, coeducation or women performing in front of men. A strong women’s culture results from such constant segregation by gender, and in the Lubavitcher movement, women have published articulate explanations of their roles in the separate women’s sphere.
Influence of Women in the Lubavitcher (Chabad) Movement
Most Hasidic communities are in fact closed to outsiders — meaning that even other Jews cannot join the specific sect if they were not born into its lineage. This clannishness has been a public relations nightmare for some groups. In the mid-1990s, several outstanding court challenges by the Satmar Hasidic communities of Monsey and Kiryas Joel in upstate New York called for greater religious autonomy and separation from outside control. One Hasidic sect, however — the Lubavitcher movement, also known as Chabad — has gained enormous power and visibility by deliberately recruiting assimilated, nonobservant Jews to its ranks. Here, Hasidic women have been highly influential as educated, multilingual outreach activists, speakers, and writers.
Based in Crown Heights, supported by the late Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson (1902?-1994), Lubavitcher women in America have enjoyed fantastic gains in educational and work opportunities. As activists, they represent the face of Hasidic women to other Jews, undertaking campaigns to popularize laws incumbent upon observant Jewish women (such as Sabbath candle-lighting and laws surrounding menstruation).
From the moment he assumed leadership in 1950, the Lubavitcher Rebbe brought radical change to a movement that had always been symbolized by male activists. Within one eight-year period–1951 to 1959–the rebbe and his assistants approved the founding of a girls’ school system, an organization for all Lubavitcher women (Neshei Ubnos Chabad), two community publications by and for women (Di yiddishe heym and the Neshei Chabad Newsletter), and annual conventions for Lubavitcher women activists from all over North America. These institutions grew to provide a vast range of roles for women hungry for intellectual and religious challenge.
By the early 1970s, when feminist criticism of ultra-Orthodox Judaism’s role for women placed the Lubavitcher movement on the defensive, a spectrum of skilled women writers were ready to answer in kind. A variety of books on the Hasidic woman’s role and belief system appeared to confront feminist calls for change. These texts included The Modern Jewish Woman and AURA: A Reader on Jewish Womanhood, both prepared by the Lubavitch Women’s Organization.
As outreach missionaries, or shluchos, Lubavitcher women as well as men now travel to remote locations or to turbulent college campuses — wherever Jews live — providing, through what is known as the “Chabad House,” a lively forum for dialogue and Jewish learning. This aggressive interaction has attracted many young and adult Jews to become Lubavitcher followers.
The close-knit Lubavitcher community holds considerable appeal for displaced women in postmodern society, and several books in the 1980s and 1990s explored this appeal. Lis Harris’s Holy Days, Deborah Kaufman’s Rachel’s Daughters, and Lynn Davidman’s Tradition in a Rootless World are examples of feminist investigators’ growing interest in Ba’alot Teshuvah (Jewish women who have embraced ultra-Orthodoxy). Because Harris, Kaufman, and Davidman let Hasidic women speak for themselves, the reading public has now met many a strong-minded Lubavitcher activist, and misconceptions about Hasidic practices are lessening.
However, for real insight into Lubavitcher women’s concerns, there is no substitute for the quarterly Yiddish/English journal Di Yiddishe Heim, a Lubavitch publication that offers a mixture of Jewish history and legal interpretations, humorous anecdotes about Hasidic family life, and articles on developments in the Lubavitcher girls’ school system (Bais Rivkah). Moreover, most cities in the United States now feature a Chabad House where interested Jews may attend introductory talks or workshops on women’s role in Hasidic Judaism. While other Hasidic sects scorn the Lubavitchers as opportunistic or too willing to compromise on issues of modernity, the Lubavitch movement has enabled Hasidic women to study, advocate, and publish–in short, to gain an American voice.
Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronounced: yuh-SHEE-vuh or yeh-shee-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, a traditional religious school, where students mainly study Jewish texts.