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  • Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi 1666-1816
  • Marc David Baer
Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabb atai Zevi 1666-1816, by Ada Rapoport-Albert, translated by Deborah Greniman. Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2011. 386 pp.

Scholars have long debated whether Hasidism was the heir of Sabbateanism or, as the dialectical response to Sabbateanism, its product. Unique for its focus on questions of gender and sexuality rather than mystical union and the tzadik, Women and the Messianic Heresy sides with those who contend Hasidism was more a reaction to Sabbatean excesses than a direct continuation. The body of the book and an appendix promote the thesis that an egalitarian attitude to women was central to Sabbateanism from the messianic outbreak of Shabbatai Tzevi in 1666 to the death of Eve Frank in 1816, whereas the introduction and conclusion claim that Hasidism, reacting to the trauma of Sabbateanism, went beyond traditional Judaism in its exclusion of women from the spiritual enterprise.

While the study's focus is novel and thus a welcome addition to the literature on Sabbateanism, Hasidism, and Jewish messianism, neither the argument of the book nor the evidence presented vary much from what Gershom Scholem published on gender and sexuality in the Sabbatean and Frankist movements. Indeed, well over twenty years ago Rapoport-Albert herself wrote an article contesting the notion that Hasidism offered women equality in religious life, countering that within Judaism only Sabbateanism promoted a vision of gender-egalitarianism. Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi is a revised and fully elaborated articulation of this claim, the author now contending that Sabbateanism offered a complete reconceptualization of women's status, indeed, the empowerment and liberation of women.

Uncritically quoting Sabbatean, anti-Sabbatean, and outside observer accounts mainly as they appear in Scholem's published works or other Hebrew translations, Rapoport-Albert argues that Sabbatean messianism [End Page 177] envisioned and partially realized a gender revolution in Judaism, offering a radical departure in understandings of female spirituality. The vision incorporated an egalitarian and a libertine trend that both overturned gender boundaries. Sabbatean antinomianism's stress on faith rather than positive commandments offered Jewish women their first opportunity to partake in religious life as equals to men, even as celibate holy virgins, for they were no longer viewed as merely material beings. Open transgression of the negative commandments also established parity of the sexes and gave women a central role in religious life, for these prohibitions centered on the body, and promoting previously prohibited sexual relations—especially adultery—offered women, particularly prophetesses and the wives of leading Frankist families, an active role. The author does not address how Frankist father-daughter incest could have been liberating for the female sex.

In teleological fashion Rapoport-Albert depicts a continuous and ever-radicalizing "egalitarian agenda," although the evidence is more suggestive than conclusive, as the author admits. It begins with Shabbatai Tzevi's pledge to annul the original sin and the abrogration of women's punishment of childbirth and subservience to men. Women would henceforth be liberated from physical suffering and inferiority; they would be free to engage in spiritual pursuits. Shabbatai Tzevi's calling women to the reading of the Torah was a concrete expression of this pledge. This egalitarian revolution was carried out most fully at Jacob Frank's court. Despite the fact that Jacob Frank offered a continually evolving messianic approach over the course of half a century, the author takes Words of the Lord to represent the sum total of his thinking. According to Words of the Lord, men and women had equal spiritual value, and this was realized in equal numbers of male and female disciples, considered "sisters" and "brothers" of the same family. They undertook periods of chastity, and separately performed the same rituals in parallel, interspersed with having ritualized sexual intercourse. Frank's most original contribution to messianism was conceiving of the manifestation of the feminine powers of the divine in a human female. He claimed the messianic redeemer was a woman, the divine Maiden, embodied in his virgin daughter Eve. This also broke with earlier Sabbateans, whose wives had had redemptive power only by...


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