Books / Chassidic History / Chassidut Belz / Haredi Women / Jewish History / Middle Ages / Women Issues

Jewish women in the Middle Ages and their escape into Freedom

There are people who are totally fascinated by various kinds of mystic topics. Jewish and, in particular, kabbalistic subjects where the physical world meets the metaphysical world. Everything we see is the revealed Creation but how about the concealed part of Creation ?
There are definitely a lot of people attracted by these topics but the question is whether a not too learned Jew is able to cope with this kind of knowledge. Too many people entirely misunderstand kabbalistic concepts. They are so overwhelmed that they start making up their own thoughts and interpretations. As a matter of fact, the more I read opinions by Jews without a higher Jewish education, the more I am shocked about their senseless and even crazy personal interpretations. What these people say has nothing to do with Judaism and only exists in their own confused mind.
When it comes to Rachel Elior’s book title “Dybukks and Jewish Women in social History, Mysticism and Folklore” many people probably start thinking that this must be a great mystical book about Dybbuks. Something really spooky !
What Rachel Elior actually does is, first of all, going a little deeper into the subject of “The role of Jewish women in the Middle Ages”. The author provides a lot of quotes from various Jewish sources such as the Talmud and the Midrash. It is all about the superior role of men and the women’s role of being a subservient wife. A woman has to get married at a rather early age, have children, cook and run the household. Not only in Judaism but also (and here Rachel Elior is quoting from the writings of Christian Paul) Christian women.
Women living in the Middle Ages hardly ever enjoyed any rights and were supposed to be in the kitchen and serving their husbands. Many girls were married off at the age of 13 or 14. Sometimes to a teenage boy and, in the worst case, too a far older widower. Women were not protected from abuse, rape and any other kind of domestic violence.
Rachel Elior has an interesting thesis: The only way out was when a young girl who was supposed to get married, started claiming to be  possessed by a Dybbuk. Or, at least, try acting this way. In this case, no man would be interested in her because she was weird, crazy, possessed, mentally ill.
The idea of claiming to be possessed by a Dybbuk sounds rather funny to me but it definitely wasn’t funny to young women living in the Middle Ages. What if a young woman or girl didn’t want to marry a certain guy her parents had chosen ? If the guy was disgusting and a pervert ? What if the girl didn’t want to marry at all but do other things in life ?
In Jewish religious society today it is still considered as a kind of strange when a woman is not married. There is always the idea that there must be something wrong with this person. For instance, I am not married. Not because I don’t want to but because I haven’t found a guy I want to get married to. Things happen but, on the other hand, I have to admit that I am enjoying my independence. I am not obligated to anyone and when I want to go to the cinema, I don’t need to make arrangements or tell a husband that I am not at home for two hours.
The freedom of choice we enjoy today, women living in the Middle Ages never had. Parents and society were making up the rules and, in case someone started rebelling, then this person was considered as mentally ill. Maybe even possessed by a Dybbuk !
Rebellious women were not part of society but, on the other hand, some women actually were educated and had their personal freedom. What about Rashi’s daughters who were studying Talmud with their father ? How about a Dona Gracia, Devorah, Beruriah or the Jewish foremothers ? When Yitzchak prayed together with Rivka (Rebecca) ?
These independent women would have never joined any Reform movement but, in their ways, were frum feminists with a strong will. Let us take a look at the Maiden of Ludmir or Eidel Rubin, the daughter of the first Belzer Rebbe Shalom Rokeach. Rachel Elior quotes the author Ada Rappaport – Albert “On Women and Hasidism”: Eidel rebelled against the norms of society. She was the daughter of the Belzer Rebbe Shalom (1783 – 1855). She apparently was a Zaddik and extremely learned. Eidel seems to have challenged her brother Yehoshua and he claimed that she was possessed by a Dybbuk. The same did the opponents of the Maiden of Ludmir.
However, the author Menachem M. Brayer writes in his book “The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature: A psychohistorical perspective” that already Rebbe Shalom’s wife and thus Eidel’s mother, Rebbitzen Malka, acted as a pious Zaddeket. Eidel followed in her mother’s footsteps.
Rachel Elior brings a source stating that Yehoshua Rokeach carried out an exorcism procedure on his sister.
On Eidel who, later on, got married, I found this piece of information:
Rachel Elior wrote an interesting Dybbuk book containing a lot of history on medieval Jewish women. Her thesis sounds logical although no one today can generalize. Even if a young woman pretended her way out of society norms, medieval society would have had no pity on her. Not following the rules meant being an outcast for life. And in those days until the 1960ies, this wasn’t funny !
I recommend reading the book but take into consideration that it is not a book for beginners but for people who are familiar with Lurianic Kabbalah and various kabbalistic concepts.

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