What has been the role of women in the history of Jewish mysticism? Are there examples of women kabbalists (Jewish mystics) who were in any way comparable to the famous women mystics of Christianity or Islam?
‘Kabbalah’, generally used as a generic term for Jewish mysticism between the early Middle Ages and the modern Chassidic movement, refers to a specific textual tradition. Participating in this tradition meant seeing the entire Jewish tradition through a peculiar lens. All biblical and post-biblical texts and ritual practices were viewed as embodying and reflecting the inner-structure of the Godhead, conceived in terms of sefirot (divine channels).
Since women were not active producers or consumers of the textual tradition of kabbalah, they could not be considered kabbalists in the strict sense of the term. This does not, however, preclude the possibility that Jewish women had mystical experiences. Indeed, the famous women mystics of Christianity and Islam were largely illiterate, and it was precisely their remove from the tradition of learning that lent their spiritual achievements an all-the-more miraculous quality.
Inquisitorial records from late medieval Spain record numerous cases of female Jewish prophets. Foremost among them was a young girl, Inés of Herrera. Inés told her many followers of her ascents to heaven, guided by angels. In the words of one inquisitorial witness, “she saw purgatory and the souls who suffered there, and also, how in another department others sat with honour upon golden thrones.” Inés and other prophetic women of her time led gatherings that included throngs of followers who engaged in ecstatic dancing, song, mystical marriages, and calls for fasting and repentance.
During the renaissance of Jewish mysticism that took place in the Galilean town of Safed in the mid-16th century there is evidence of a number of mystically active Jewish women. The hagiographic literature describing the luminaries of the period, including Rabbis Isaac Luria and Hayyim Vital, includes stories about a woman named Francesa Sarah. This woman is also mentioned in Vital’s mystical diary, The Book of Visions.
According to Vital’s diary, Francesa Sarah was present in the study hall when he lectured on Jewish mysticism in the late 16th century. He described her as “a pious woman, who sees visions while awake, and hears a voice speaking to her. Most of her pronouncements are true.” Joseph Sambari, in his history of the Jews under Muslim rule (written in the mid-17th century) describes Francesa Sarah as “a woman, wise and great in her deeds … She had a maggid (angelic medium) speak to her to inform her of what was to be in the world. The sages of Safed tested her several times to know if there was substance to her words, and if everything that she said came to pass.”
Another leading figure of this period was the young daughter of Rav Raphael Anav. While we do not know her name, there is extensive documentation of her activities in Damascus in the year 1609. This young woman served as an oracle to the entire Jewish community, and was consulted, and obeyed, by its leading rabbinic figures. The spiritual advisor of the young Anav girl was a woman by the name of Rachel Aberlin. Rachel enjoyed visions of Elijah the prophet regularly, and was described by Vital as having been “accustomed to seeing visions, demons, souls, and angels, and most everything she says is correct, from her childhood and through her adulthood.”
Criticizing Vital’s bookish interpretation of one of her mystical dreams, Rachel told him, “You tell me the words of the biblical verse as they are written, but I see the matter in actual practice, and completely manifest.” Vital, the male kabbalist, may have been the master of the mystical word, the sacred text, but Rachel was the adept of experience.”
The involvement of Jewish women in the messianic movement may have led to a backlash devoted to the eradication of the very memory of women’s mystical activity. When it is defined more broadly, there is considerable evidence for the existence of eminent women Jewish mystics.