Tuesday, June 24, 2008

R’ Hayyim Vital and his Female Visionaries

In previous posts I have discussed the situation of female visionaries within Christian thought. I wish therefore to say something about the situation of female visionaries within Judaism. This tradition of female visionaries is noticeably lacking with Judaism. Why is an interesting question, one that does not have any clear cut answers. One is hard pressed to even talk about the existence of female visionaries. Gershom Scholem denied that there was such a thing as female mysticism within Kabblah. According to Scholem, Kabbalah is a masculine doctrine; it lacks Islam’s Rabia or Christianity’s Mechthild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich or Theresa de Avila. The reason why Scholem dismisses the notion of female Kabbalists is that there are no Kabbalistic texts written by women.

J. H. Chajes devotes a chapter in his book on Dybbuks to bringing women into the history Kabbalistic thought by considering a wider range of information beyond simple source texts, which formed the basis for Scholem’s work. While we do not have Kabbalistic works written by women, women do play a major role in Hayyim Vital’s mystical diary, Sefer ha-Hezyonot, book of visions. In this work we find Jewish women who operated in ways that closely parallel the cases of Christian female mystics.

Vital consulted various women for their skills in divination and contacting the dead. Early in his career he consulted with a woman named Sanadora. She, through her technique of gazing into droplets of olive oil, predicted that Vital would become a great Kabbalist. We find a reference to Francesa Sarah of Safed and the daughter of R’ Shlomo Alkabetz being present in the house of study while Vital lectured. It would seem that that rabbinate in Safed held Francesa’s powers in high regard and that she has a certain amount of power over them. When she predicted that a plague was going to strike Safed, the rabbis decreed a public fast.

The two most important female visionaries in Vital’s writing are the daughter of Raphael Anav and Rachel Aberlin. The Daughter of Raphael Anav, we do not even know her name, was originally possessed by a good spirit, which took on the name Hakham Piso, who entered her while he was doing penance on earth. This spirit was expelled but later this girl gained a reputation of being able to serve as a medium for all sorts of good angels and spirits. Because of this various rabbis came to consult with her. She denounced various prominent figures such as the poet R’ Israel Najara and R’ Jacob Abulafia, the head of the Spanish congregation in Damascus.

Rachel Aberlin was a wealthy widow, who operated together with the Anav girl for quite a number of years and mentored her; they show up in many of the same places. Rachel was a visionary in her own right. For example she had a vision of Vital with a pillar of fire over his head and being supported by Elijah the prophet. There was another vision in which she sees him eating lettuce and radishes. Chajes sees this as a mixture of praise and criticism.

Matt Goldish pointed out to me that the major difference between the women that Vital talks about and the women we find Christian mystical literature is that, while there are numerous examples of women in Christian mystical literature who take on very active roles and are treated as figures of authority in their own right, Vitals treats his women as passive ciphers. They have little intrinsic value in of themselves; they are vessels into which spirits used in order to aid Vital and other rabbis. One can easily imagine taking Vital’s narrative and turning it around to a feminine perspective. These women could be viewed as bearers of such tremendous spiritual power that holy spirits came to rest within them, something that even most great rabbis never merited. Even R’ Hayyim Vital had to go to these women and place himself under their authority in order to receive the instructions from heaven.

While there is such a thing, within traditional Jewish thought, as a female visionary, the fact that it does not play a major role within Jewish mysticism, nothing to compare with what we find in Christianity, means that we still have not gotten around the issue of the male centricity of Jewish mysticism. Why do we not hear more about female visionaries?


Ariel Segal said...

Hi Benzion!

There are 2 books coming out in September 2009 and April 2010 by Ada Rapoport-Albert that deals with the issues you raise, although more in the context of Shabtai Tzvi & when asceticism was considered appropriate:

Sep 2009:
Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi, 1666–1816


Note on Transliteration and Conventions Used in the Text

1 Female Prophets in Sabbatianism
2 Historical Precedents and Contexts
3 Sabbatian Women as Religious Activists
4 Women in Sectarian Sabbatianism
5 The Egalitarian Agenda: Sources of Inspiration and Modes of Implementation
6 In the Egalitarian 'Family' of Jacob Frank
7 The Redemptive 'Maiden'
8 'The Mother of God': Frank and the Russian Sectarians
9 Conclusion: From Sabbatianism to Hasidism

Appendix: 'Something for the Female Sex': A Call for the Liberation of Women and the Release of the Female Libido from the 'Shackles of Shame', in an anonymous Frankist manuscript from Prague, c.1800
April 2010:
Female Bodies, Male Souls Asceticism and Gender in the Jewish Tradition


Hope this helps.

KT, Ariel Segal

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

the Daughter of Raphael Anav who 'denounced' R' Israel Najara and R' Jacob Abul‘afia — what did her denouncing consist of?

Izgad said...

I have been a reader of your blog for several months now; I am a fan.
You caught me in a bit of a hanging sentence there. My bad!
The daughter of Raphael Anav accused Najara of speaking filthily, for being drunk, engaging in sodomy and for sleeping with a gentile woman. She accused Abulafia of bringing down God’s wraith because he allowed women to go about immodestly dressed along with some sexual transgressions, particulary sodomy and sleeping with gentile women. Those two sins seem to have been a common theme. They also play a prominent role amongst the sins that Isaac Luria offered tikkunim for. (See Lawrence Fine’s Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos.)
I am sure you would agree, all these accusations of sex gives one a different view of Safed in the sixteenth century from what you find in Artscroll. :)

YMedad said...

this sentence is, well, incomplete: "Rachel Aberlin was a wealthy widow to have operated together for quite a number of years".

what did you mean to write?

Izgad said...

I cleaned that sentence up.