A recently published history of the ḥasidic movement, composed by a number of prominent scholars, has been attacked in academic circles for having an insufficient number of female contributors. By contrast, Glenn Dynner offers a far more substantive critique: that the book’s authors vastly understate women’s role in Ḥasidism. Yes, most East European ḥasidic synagogues had seating for men only, and the crucial gatherings around the rebbe’s table were male-only affairs. But the book’s assertions that “female members of ḥasidic households did not historically define themselves as Ḥasidim, nor were they defined as such by others,” and that there were no specifically ḥasidic rituals in which women participated are wrong:
Many ḥasidic women cultivated (and still do cultivate) a distinctive lifestyle and worldview: their household customs and foodways differ [from those of traditional non-ḥasidic women, as well as from one ḥasidic sect to another]; their celebration of certain Jewish holidays are affected by the absence of their husbands [who would often spend the entire holiday in the company of the rebbe]; they follow ḥasidic liturgical changes; their clothing is distinctive; and their marriages and wedding ceremonies hold special meanings.
Since the early 19th century, ḥasidic women have made pilgrimages to tsaddikim [the “righteous men” or rebbes who lead individual ḥasidic sects] during times of crisis, with or without the accompaniment of a man, bearing petitions that requested the tsaddik’s blessing, advice, and divine intercession. Early tsaddikim like Israel of Kozienice (d. 1815) were attacked by non-ḥasidic opponents for their popularity among women and their willingness to grant “a hundred blessings” for fertility.
Certain ḥasidic women emerged as activists and major patrons of the movement, influencing its very course. Part of my research has focused on Temerel Sonenberg-Bergson, a major 19th-century patron of Ḥasidism whose spectacular financial successes during the Kingdom of Poland’s incipient industrial revolution enabled her to groom, promote, and support tsaddikim, finance ḥasidic institutions, and intervene with officials on behalf of the movement. Not surprisingly, ḥasidic sources refer to Temerel as a “Ḥasidah” [i.e., a ḥasidic woman].