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The Maiden of Ludmir – Jewish Hasidic Rebbe

August 6, 2008

This post is one of a five-part series on women mystics, one from each of the five major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Click here for the full series.

Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, also known as ‘the maiden of Ludmir’ was a nineteenth-century Hasidic Jewish woman popularly known as the only female Hasidic Rebbe, or religious leader, although she was never officially accorded that status. She was born in the Ukraine to a father that studied with a well-known Rebbe of the time, and based on visions and readings he received from him, believed his daughter to have special spiritual gifts. He therefore provided her with a religious education unusual for girls of her time, including intense study of the Torah.

As Hannah approached her teens and showed little interest in marrying or traditional female occupations, her father began to doubt his decision, and attempted to interest Hannah in a suitable young man, and limit her Torah study. After this attempt went awry, and following the death of her mother, Hannah experienced a deep depression followed by a religious dream in which she was told that she was in fact destined to live the life of a Hasidic religious leader, woman or no. She refused all attempts to tell her otherwise, and shaped an unusual life for herself as a spiritual counselor to many people, mostly women, within her Ukrainian community.

She lived alone in a small hut, engaged in Talmudic study and engaging in Kabbalistic mystic practices usually reserved only for Hasidic men. On the Sabbath, she would give religious discourses through a small window. Over time, she developed a reputation, and people would travel from all over Eastern Europe to hear her discourses, receive blessings, or ask for advice or healings.

This eventually upset the religious leaders of the area, who had originally written her off as an eccentric. Several times they sternly rebuked her and ordered her to marry. She refuted their arguments with her own Talmudic quotes, insisting that scripture clearly stated women had the right to study the Torah if they were so called. At one point, the pressure become so bad that she agreed to a sham marriage, but she had it annulled almost immediately and resumed her old life.

Eventually Hannah emigrated to Israel, and attracted a new small group of devoted followers. She is buried on the Mount of Olives, and in recent years, burgeoning interest in her story has attracted many visitors to her grave.

For more information on Hannah Rachel, check out the following books, The Maiden of Ludmir: A Jewish Holy Woman and Her World by Nathaniel Deutsch and The Receiving: Reclaiming Jewish Women’s Wisdom, by Tirzah Firestone.

The other posts in this series are on Margery Kempe (Christian), Sukhasiddhi (Buddhist), Rabia Basri (Islamic), and Mirabai (Hindu). For books on more women mystics, check out the Women’s Spiritual Book List or the Women Mystics page.

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