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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.