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Female Bodies, Male Souls: Asceticism and Gender in the Jewish Tradition

By news editor, on 7 March 2012

Review of the valedictory lecture by Professor Ada Rapoport-Albert, 28 February, by Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz.

Why have there never been any female Jewish mystics or ascetics?

This intriguing question lay at the heart of Professor Ada Rapoport-Albert’s lecture, a tour de force crowning her 44 years at the UCL Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

Academic ambivalence
Professor Rapoport-Albert set the scene by reminding us of the ambivalence of attitudes towards mysticism and asceticism, both in the academic world and that of the early rabbis.

Up to the 1930s, mysticism was characterised by academics as primitive, illogical and somewhat shameful, a view that was only changed in Jewish studies by the revolutionary work of Gershom Scholem. Similarly, asceticism was regarded with suspicion and ‘banished’ to Christianity and Gnosticism. It was not judged worthy of serious academic research until after the waning of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

The appearance of AIDS in the 1980s and the corresponding revaluation of sexual abstinence played a vital role in changing the academic climate, and both Jewish mysticism and asceticism now attract a great deal of scholarly interest.

Conflicted Rabbis
Attitudes weren’t so different in the rabbinic world of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, and were equally dependent on wider social ideas about appropriate behaviour.

The rabbis of the Talmud were as conflicted as the moderns, blowing hot and cold about ascetic practices: on the one hand, fertility (implying an active sex life) was the first command of the Bible, while on the other hand, ascetic practices (including fasting, self-mortification, and abstention from sex) were deemed an essential part of the mystical approach to God.

Several mechanisms were developed to cope with the tensions generated by these opposing tendencies. An effective limit on ascetic practices was created by restricting them to the scholarly elite – which automatically excluded women, who were exempt from the obligation to study and had little opportunity of doing so.

With the masses cordoned off from ascetic excess, the rabbis were free to uphold women’s right to sexual satisfaction in marriage, even coming up with recommendations for the frequency of sex for different social groups and professions.

It’s notable that scholars are prescribed the lowest level of frequency, enabling them to take on ascetic practices.

Female exclusion
In addition, asceticism was strongly gendered in the rabbinic and mediaeval worldview: it was never acceptable for women, in contrast to the contemporary Christian and Islamic worlds, in which women could – and did – follow the ascetic paths, becoming influential and respected mystics.

Professor Rapoport-Albert pointed out that Judaism may be unique in this refusal to permit women’s self-denial as a form of religious expression – but why?

Was there perhaps a ‘back way in’ for women? What about the wives of ascetic scholars? Tellingly, while their husbands were recognised as engaged in praiseworthy religious activity, no religious value at all was assigned to the women’s enforced abstinence, which remained invisible and unmentioned.

While a scholar’s wife might be lauded as a patient and long-suffering victim, she remained a by-product of her husband’s sanctity rather than being a spiritual heroine in her own right. Indeed, women who sought to try the ascetic path themselves came in for censure from the rabbis, with one talmudic source even describing them as among “the destroyers of the world”!

Professor Rapoport-Albert finds a clue to this total exclusion in a statement by the 16th-century Maharal of Prague: “As woman is inherently corporeal, abstinence is unnatural.”

Originating in the Judaeo-Arabic philosophical tradition, the concept of woman as literally ‘embodying’ matter and the corporeal, and of man as essentially linked to form, spirit, and intellect continues throughout the kabbalistic and hasidic traditions.

This view of the essential nature of gender makes it simply impossible for women to participate in the spiritual, mystic tradition characterised by ascetic practices. Earlier texts too contain references to aspects of this concept, with women consistently associated with the corporeal and physical, and, by extension, with the potential impurity that characterises this realm of existence.

Adam and Eve
A particularly telling example is an early pseudepigraphic text, the Life of Adam, in which both Adam and Eve are described as atoning for their sin in the Garden of Eden by ascetic means, immersing themselves in a river for days. Although clear echoes of this text can be found in mediaeval Jewish pietistic works, Eve has disappeared from the picture, leaving only Adam as the original ascetic.

For much of pre-modern Judaism (and in some contemporary Jewish traditions), women remain irredeemably anchored to the earth and to corporeality; it is only (some) men who can take wing and ascend to the mystical heights.

I left the lecture musing on how these insights could be applied to my own research on contemporary Jewish women, and excited by the knowledge that this valedictory lecture represents the start of Professor Rapoport-Albert’s next career stage.

She plans to write three books in the coming years, the first of which will be on the topic of this lecture, which will be published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

By Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz, third year student for a part-time PhD, UCL Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

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