Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One Tenacity in Exile
"Hannah Rachel of Ludomir (1815 1905)
For over two thousand years, feminine wisdom has run through Jewish history like an underground stream. Submerged by a dominant ethic that did not know how to tap its riches, it was left to meander, discovering its own subterranean path to the ocean. In its long exile, unseen and unlauded, the stream has wended its way beneath desert and temple, glory and wreckage. Intermittently surfacing to the light, laughing out loud at human folly, it always returned to its hidden route, quietly nourishing the earth from below.
But in our time, the underground current of women's wisdom is rising to the surface for good, ready to pour forth its treasures, never to be pushed down again.
Hannah Rachel of Ludomir was one woman mystic who exemplifies this persistent current of feminine wisdom. Literally pushed out of the Jewish community by its male leaders, Hannah Rachel was humiliated and debased because she violated their narrow view of femininity. Nevertheless, this brilliant and tenacious woman succeeded in becoming a testimony to the enduring power of women.
Living in enforced isolation in a tiny green hut, Hannah Rachel had a profound relationship with divine forces, which gave her the strength to withstand the external condemnation she received while she studied, prayed, and made meaning of Judaism's deepest truths. Hannah Rachel's tenacity reminds us that we each must discover our own relationship to God and reclaim and make new meaning of our ancient heritage.
Hannah Rachel's story begins at the turn of the nineteenth century, in a village called Ludomir, on the Lug River in the Ukraine. Her father, asimple Jewish shopkeeper named Monisch Werbermacher, had been counseled by his local rabbi to divorce his barren wife, as Jewish law suggests when a couple have been childless for ten years or more. This would allow him to find a more fertile woman to provide him with children. But Monisch loved his wife, Leah, and Leah loved him. He could not bring himself to follow such advice.
Instead, Monisch journeyed to another rabbi, a sage and miracle worker known as the "Seer of Lublin" (Rabbi Jacob Isaac HaLevi Horovitz) to ask that, if Heaven would allow it, he bless his wife and himself with a child. Monisch stood trembling as the holy man closed his eyes. For a time it was as if he were absent from the room. Finally he said, "Go home. Your wife will soon conceive a child. A holy soul this one is." On his journey home, overflowing with gratitude and awe, Monisch vowed to raise his unborn child to become the learned sage he was meant to become. No effort would be spared.
The following year, Leah bore a daughter. Monisch reeled with shock. "A daughter?" he cried. How could a female become a rabbi or sage? What could the Seer have been seeing? Everyone knew that only male children could take their formal place in the faith. It was not even customary to educate girls in the sacred texts. Letters enough to read Yiddish, yes, and perhaps a little Russian to get along, but nothing more.
Nevertheless, Monisch resolved to fulfill his vow to raise a sage. Against the misgivings of his wife and the Seer of Lublin himself, when the girl, named Hannah Rachel, turned five, she was sent to take instruction in the finest schoolhouse in the area. There she began her career in sacred Hebrew andAramaic texts, all the while sitting behind a screen to keep her apart from her male schoolmates.
Hannah Rachel took to her studies with aplomb. By the time she was eight years old, she had distinguished herself as a scholar, stunning everyone with her ability to memorize, understand, and penetrate the essence of the texts. But there was something amiss and even her father sensed it. Hannah Rachel was too precocious, too solemn; indeed, she seemed not a child at all. Disinterested in playing or socializing, she would withdraw to her room after classes and continue to pore over her tomes. Soon she began to ignore her parents too, speaking only when spoken to. Her mother, weakened from her pregnancy late in life and distressed over her daughter's long silences, grew sick and died. By then Hannah Rachel was nine.
Monisch, now a widower, questioned the wisdom of his bold experiment in raising a daughter to be a scholar. Finally he went to a Jewish court to have his vow annulled and pulled Hannah Rachel out of school. But this only served to aggravate the situation. Hannah Rachel refused to tear herself away from her studies. For days at a time she would not talk; instead, she stood swaying over her large volumes, intoning passages from them in ancient liturgical chant.
As happens in small, tightly knit, communities, the neighbors began to gossip, spreading malicious rumors about Hannah Rachel. Surely she was possessed, some whispered. She was queer and sexless, said others, neither woman nor man. Hannah Rachel was twelve by then and of marriageable age. But when her worried father broached the subject, she replied that she had no inclination whatsoever to be "as other females."
What was Monisch to do? He was a plainspoken man, and his adolescent daughter was getting to be too articulate a scholar for him to fight with. The Seer of Lublin had died the same year his wife had passed away. So he decided to consult the celebrated Hassidic rebbe Mordechai of Chernobyl.
Reluctantly, Hannah Rachel accompanied her father to Chernobyl to see the great preacher. In her presence, the rabbi reprimanded Monisch for having subjected the girl to the holy books. Hannah Rachel herself interrupted the rabbi and began debating on Talmudic grounds why it is indeed permissible for women to study the sacred texts.
"On the very same page of Tractate Sota that you are quoting is the counterargument, Rabbi."
"I see you know the text. But daughter, no one has the right to interfere with the tradition, which is God's intention for women. A woman's fate is marriage and children."
“The book that Ive waited for all my life...Firestone has brought through a great blessing for us all.” Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., author of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind and A Woman's Journey to God
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“Rabbi Tirzah Firestone has given us a gift...the history of religious experience is enriched, and so are we.” Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent
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“Firestone is a talented writer....She is also an excellent psychotherapist and has delved deeply into Kabbala and Jewish mysticism...” --The Jerusalem Post
“[Firestone] writes convincingly of the power of the feminine to enrich and uplift the world.” Publishers Weekly
A highly respected rabbi, therapist, and teacher restores women's spiritual lineage to Judaism and empowers women to reclaim their rightful connection to Jewish teachings, Kabbalah, and to their own spiritual wisdom.
A highly respected rabbi, therapist, and teacher restores women's spiritual lineage to Judaism and empowers women to reclaim their rightful connection to Jewish teachings, Kabbalah, and to their own spiritual wisdom.A highly respected rabbi, therapist, and teacher restores women's spiritual lineage to Judaism and empowers women to reclaim their rightful connection to Jewish teachings, Kabbalah, and to their own spiritual wisdom.
About the Author
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone is the author of the highly acclaimed With Roots in Heaven: One Woman's Passionate Journey into the Heart of Her Faith and is a psychotherapist as well as the founding rabbi of the Jewish Renewal Congregation of Boulder, Colorado. Firestone teaches and lectures nationally on Jewish spirituality. She lives in Boulder with her husband, David, and their three children.