Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
A semi-legendary figure, reputed to have been one of the few women in Hasidism who functioned as a fully-fledged spiritual master (Tzaddik or Rebbe). Most of the information about her originates in oral traditions of “old women in Volhynia,” first collected and published in 1909 by the historian Samuel Abba Horodezky (1871-1987). These were subsequently subjected to his own as well as others’ elaborations and expansions, which appeared in a variety of popular-historical, belletristic, journalistic and memoiristic works.
Significantly, the hagiographical literature of nineteenth-century Hasidism makes no mention whatsoever of her, nor is any mystical or ethical teaching attributed to her in other genres of Hasidic writing. She is, however, mentioned briefly in an 1883 satirical work by a maskil and, following the publication of Horodezky’s reports, in a handful of twentieth-century hagiographical anthologies.
Hannah Rachel, the Maid, was the only daughter of Monesh Verbermacher, an educated and well-to-do Jew in the Volhynian town of Ludomir (Vladimir-Volynskiy). From an early age she was distinguished not only because of her beauty but also–unusually for a girl–by dint of her ardor in prayer and remarkable aptitude for scholarship.
Her betrothal to a beloved childhood playmate, which entailed the customary separation of bride and groom until the wedding, distressed the Maid and led her to withdraw from society. Her distress was exacerbated by the sudden death of her mother, following which she became a recluse, never leaving her room except to visit her mother’s grave.
On one of her visits to the cemetery she fell into unconsciousness, which was followed by a prolonged and mysterious illness. When she recovered she claimed to have been given “a new and elevated soul.” She broke off her engagement and declared that she would never marry, having “transcended the world of the flesh.”
Gaining Special Powers
From then on she adopted the full rigor of male ritual observance and absorbed herself, like a male pietist, in intense study and prayer. She became known as the “holy Maid” or the “Virgin” of Ludomir, and acquired a reputation for miracle working. Men and women, including rabbis and scholars, flocked to the beit midrash in Ludomir which functioned as her hasidic court. She would grant blessings on request and deliver her weekly hasidic teaching at the third Sabbath meal, as was customary among male Tzaddikim.
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).
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.
Pronounced: AHSH-ken-AH-zee, Origin: Hebrew, Jews of Central and Eastern European origin.
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.
Pronounced: TZAH-dik or tzah-DEEK, Origin: Hebrew, a righteous person.