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On the position of women in Sabbatianism

Rapoport-Albert, A.; (2001) On the position of women in Sabbatianism. In: Elior, R., (ed.) The Sabbatian Movement and Its Aftermath: Messianism,Sabbatianism and Frankism. (pp. 143-328). The Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies: Jerusalem, Israel.

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Abstract

Women played an unusually prominent role in all the stages and diverse manifestations of the Sabbatian movement. Many women – some of them young girls, ‘maidens’, ‘virgins’ or ‘spinsters’ – were among the earliest prophets of the movement who, by the very extraordinary nature of their prophetic revelations, served as highly effective propagandists of the Sabbatian message. Other women, including some married prophetesses, played leading roles in the rituals of transgression instituted by the movement as redemptive cosmic ‘restorations’. It would appear that virginity and celibacy co-existed with sexual licentiousness within marriage, both functioning as modes of female empowerment among the Sabbatians. This empowerment may have been facilitated by the substitution – fundamental to Sabbatianism from the outset – of the traditional doctrine of salvation by merit, which depended on compliance with the halakhic framework of Judaism, with a new doctrine of faith in the person of the Messiah, which alone secured salvation for the ‘believers’. Gender differentiation – a built-in feature of the halakhic framework – had traditionally resulted in the relegation of women to a marginal position in cultic life. By contrast, the Sabbatian women were able to occupy center stage, since their messianic faith, which transcended the domain of Halakhah, and which now came to define their religious experience, was free from regulation by any halakhic mechanism of gender differentiation. Moreover, the Sabbatian principle of ‘redemption through sin’ – particularly by means of sexual transgression – allowed much scope for women, traditionally perceived to be marked by their sexuality and physical nature. The paper assembles the admittedly fragmentary but incontrovertible evidence for the activities of the Sabbatian prophetesses. It places them in the context of such precedents as exist for this phenomenon in the Jewish sources, while at the same time drawing attention to parallel phenomena in both the Christian and Islamic spheres of Sabbatianism, both of which may have contributed to the surprising readiness of theSabbatians to grant women parity with men. The origins of their ‘egalitarian’ eschatology are traced back to Sabbatai S. evi’s own vision of redemption for women, which may have been inspired by classical kabbalistic sources. This vision found expression in such extraordinary practices as the inclusion of women, in either exclusively female or mixed company, in the ceremonial and ritual obligations of men, in the instr uction of women in Zohar and Kabbalah, as well as in the initiation of women in their own right as equal members of the sectarian Sabbatian fraternities. These tendencies culminated in the perfect symmetry between ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ in Jacob Frank’s court, maintained alternately by the strict segregation of the sexes or by the eradication of all traditional boundaries between them. Finally, Jacob Frank’s revolutionary doctrine of the redeeming ‘Maiden’ is shown to have been inspired by the Catholic cult of the ‘Black Madonna’ at Chestochova, where Frank had been imprisoned by the Polish authorities for some thirteen years. The Mother of Christ was construed in his mind as the outer ‘shell’ concealing the ‘fr uit’ – the female Messiah who was the physical manifestation of the kabbalistic sefirah, Malkhut. This sefirah, as he came to realize, was embodied in his own daughter, Eva, who became, alongside him, and ultimately on her own, the center of the messianic cult at his court until her death in 1816. It is suggested that this radical development of Sabbatian ‘feminism’, which envisaged the inauguration of redemption by a messianic couple – Jacob Frank and his daughter Eva – was anchored in some authentic kabbalistic traditions. Yet its most immediate and powerful inspiration derived from Frank’s well-attested contacts with the Russian schismatic sectarians, some peculiar elements of whose eschatology and social organization closely resemble his own.

Type:Book chapter
Title:On the position of women in Sabbatianism
ISBN:9657147026
Publisher version:http://jewish.huji.ac.il/Publications/Thought.htm
Language:English
Additional information:Hebrew title: Al ma'amad ha-nashim ba-Shabta'ut
UCL classification:UCL > School of Arts and Social Sciences > Faculty of Arts and Humanities > Hebrew and Jewish Studies

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