When Judaism and Buddhism Meet

Why does the National Library of Israel have a collection of more than 100 pieces of Buddhist art? Why are so many Jews drawn to Buddhism? Why did the Dalai Lama attend a Passover Seder? The answer to all these questions can be found by exploring the fascinating connections between the two religions.

Shaka Nyorai, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

In the process of researching a project about the lunar calendar, I typed the word “moon” into the National Library of Israel’s online catalog search bar. Alongside the many other images, to my surprise, I saw a beautiful picture titled The Kami and the Buddhas of Todaiji. I bookmarked the page on my computer, but soon forgot about it. A couple of weeks later, while looking through some of the NLI’s posters for a social media project, one image that I stumbled upon suddenly stood out to me: the Buddhist Shaka Triad.

The Kami and Buddhas of Todaiji, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel
Buddha Shakyamuni Triad, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

I promptly emailed the NLI’s curator of the Humanities Collection to ask him how we came to possess these two lovely Buddhist pieces of art, and his reply shocked me!

In 1891, an upper-class and well-educated Englishwoman named Elizabeth Anna Gordon visited Japan for the first time at the age of 40, as part of a world tour she undertook with her husband, John. The visit left a strong impression on the couple, and Elizabeth actually ended up moving to Kyoto, Japan, where she lived until her death. During her years in Kyoto, she spent her time researching Japanese Buddhism and expanding her impressive collection of Buddhist art.

Elizabeth had an insatiable interest in many of the world’s religions, and despite the fact that she enthusiastically studied Buddhism in Japan and collected numerous Buddhist books and artworks, she was also a deeply devout Christian, as well as a stout supporter of the early Zionist movement. Elizabeth Anne Gordon’s name is listed in the annals of Zionist history due to the fact that she funded the Zionist Labor Histadrut mission in 1903 to the Lake Victoria region of Africa. They had come to scout out the area for what would later be known as the “Uganda Plan” – the failed proposal to create a Jewish state in Uganda.

As she grew older, Elizabeth made a decision in honor of her commitment to Zionism, to bequeath part of her Buddhist art collection to the National Library of Israel – then still known as the Jewish National and University Library. Once donated, these images sat largely unexplored in the Library’s vast collections until 1938. When a promising young researcher of Japanese art from the Hebrew University requested to borrow some Buddhist paintings from the collections, staff at the Library were alerted to Elizabeth’s bountiful artworks which had been, by now, almost completely forgotten. Some years after the exciting rediscovery of this collection, the NLI decided to create an online exhibition of 139 of these Buddhist paintings, which is of course what I had accidentally stumbled upon.

Nembutsu Prayer Devotional Diagram with Amida Triad, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

But my original question remained: What does Buddhism have to do with us, the Library of the Jewish people? As it turns out, a lot!

In September 1893, in Chicago, Illinois, a Buddhist priest from Sri Lanka named Anagarika Dharmapala met with the young Jewish businessman Charles T. Strauss. Reciting an oath in Sanskrit, Dharmapala converted Strauss to Buddhism marking the first non-Asian person to be ordained into the Buddhist Sangha (monastic order). Following this monumental event, Buddhist leaders started to seriously explore the potential for an American Jewish interest in Buddhism. Buddhist teachers began to travel to the United States, giving lectures to large audiences disproportionately made up of Jews, about the similarities between the two faith systems, and a significant trend of new emergent literature from Jews who had adopted Buddhist belief systems can be traced to those years.

But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the Jewish Buddhist movement really took off. With the hippy ‘peace and love’ mentality on the rise, and many modern Jews seeking a more spiritual path, lots of young American Jews turned to Buddhism. Jewish friends Michael Fagan and Sam Bercholz established the Shambhala Buddhist festival; Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg and Jacqueline Mandell-Schwartz founded the famous Insight Meditation center and movement; and even David Ben-Gurion espoused Buddhist meditation!

Ben-Gurion’s visit to Burma (now Myanmar), 1961, this item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN), made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben-Gurion House Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Buddhism is non-theistic, which is to say that Buddhists do not believe in a G-d, rather a set of values to live by. Judaism, however, is monotheistic and encourages belief in one G-d as well as a strict set of rules, both in the form of practices and prohibitions. It is therefore possible, according to some opinions, to follow both religions simultaneously: to believe in a Jewish G-d, keep the Sabbath and laws of kashrut, and also subscribe to Buddhist mysticism, traditions, and values.

For Jews in the 1960s who felt that their Judaism lacked the guidance or spirituality that they craved, one option was to turn to Kabbalah, the Ethics of the Fathers, or the philosophy of the Kuzari. Alternatively, they could look further afield and adopt meditation, Karma, and the Zen beliefs of Buddhism. Many Jews chose the latter.

The Bodhisattva Kannon, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

Later in the 20th century, the term “JUBU” emerged, used to refer to the growing sect of Buddhist Jews. Chogyam Trunpa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, actually said that most of his students were Jewish, and the Dalai Lama even attended a Passover Seder in 1997! Vipassana Buddhism retreats are extremely popular with Israelis who travel to India, many of the western visitors to the Dalai Lama are Jewish, and it has been estimated by the writer of the famous JUBU book, The Jew in the Lotus that “a third of all Western Buddhist leaders come from Jewish roots.” According to certain estimates Jews count for as many as a third of all non-Asian Buddhists in North America today.

The Dalai Lama (Tensin Gyatso) arrived in Israel on March 20th, 1994 for a four-day visit as the guest of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Gideon Markowiz, 1994, Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel (1, 2, 3)

So why do so many Jews feel at home in the embrace of Buddhism?

According to Emily Sigalow, author of American JewBu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change, it was “the practice of meditation really drew them [the Jews] in.” With meditation being one of the core tenants of Buddhism, it is easy to see why some people strongly feel that these meditative practices are what attract Jews to Buddhism. Meditation is encouraged in Judaism and was practiced in the days of the Bible by prophets and priests. The mind-body duality of meditation is echoed in the Jewish belief that our bodily practices affect our spiritual growth, and that through elevating the body we can elevate the soul. Hasidic Jews often practice meditation, and for many Jews, the chanting ritual of prayer three times a day is a strongly meditative exercise. With that in mind, it is clear to see why Jews seeking to connect to a higher force may pick the meditation-focused path of Buddhism. In Rabbi Alan Lew’s book One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi, he relates how Buddhist meditation “illuminated” his unconscious and allowed him to “grow spiritually” as he related “how Jewish so much of this unconscious material was.”

Shaka Nyorai, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

However, mediation is not the only practice common to both Judaism and Buddhism. Many of the 253 monastic vows taken by committed Buddhists share similarities with Jewish mitzvot, such as tzniut (modesty) and yichud (the idea that men and women should not be alone in private). Moreover, four of the five Buddhist precepts are bans on murder, adultery, theft and lying. If these sound familiar to Jewish ears, it may be because these are some of our own Ten Commandments. Both Buddhism and Judaism encourage long hours of textural study and a high level of both spiritual and worldly education. Both religions are averse to materialism, especially in the form of modern technology. Both schools of thought believe that humans are not in true possession of the world and thus are taught (via abstinence from greed in Buddhism and via charity in Judaism) to let go of some of what we consider to be ‘our own’.

It doesn’t end there! Both Buddhism and Judaism state that improper or frivolous sexual encounters are immoral, while tantric or muttar (permitted) sexual interactions, conducted in certain settings with certain limitations, are indeed a spiritual practice. Both religions encourage self-growth as totally central to their faith, with Buddhists believing that being a better person will lead them on an enlightened path, and Jews believing that the world was created in order for humans to sanctify it with holy acts. As such, both religions believe in mussar, or guidance from others, and share a desire to tame and refine one’s character. Both groups also have a strong focus on meticulously daily activities, prescribed in order to make sure that each moment of the day contains a measure of spirituality.

Hoshi Mandara, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

But perhaps the most comparable of these similarities is the shared focus on suffering. Judaism is a religion which has endured far more than its fair share of suffering in the course of Jewish history. Buddhism teaches that suffering is a core tenant of the world: it is the cause of evil, and only through liberating ourselves from worldly suffering can salvation be reached. Ruth Sonam, a Jew who has been practicing Buddhism for over 25 years in Dharamsala, Tibet says “It’s so Jewish, you see, to always talk about suffering, as Buddhists do.”

However, while certain practices of Judaism and Buddhism may appear similar, perhaps more significant are the spiritual similarities between the two. Buddhists seek an elevated understanding of the world, and go through a similar process to what in Judaism we call chochma (a spark of understanding), binah (a deeper exploration of that understanding) and da’at (an elevated consciousness as a response to that understanding, or what Buddhists would call samadhi). Understanding the oneness of the world is a mutual goal in both religions. In Judaism we do this through kavannah (divine awareness) which is used to connect our actions to G-d. In Buddhism, spiritual consciousness is a constant goal imbued in every practice, too.

The Buddhist belief in Karma (what you do will be done back to you) is comparable to the Jewish principle of middah k’neged middah, which embodies a similar idea that the good or bad you put into the world will be returned to you in kind. Furthermore, both Jews and Buddhists say that the difficulties that one may face in life are simply tests, sent to trial our strength and help us overcome something within ourselves.

Mandala of White Path Crossing Two Rivers, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

Jews and Buddhists also share spiritual beliefs about death. In Buddhism, the tradition is that a person will be reincarnated repeatedly until they attain Nirvana, the highest form of consciousness. Some adherents of Jewish mysticism believe that a soul will be reincarnated eight times until it has grown to the highest spiritual level that it can achieve, and only then will it be at eternal rest in heaven.

Brenda Shoshanna says in her book Jewish Dharma, that the spiritual practices of Judaism and Buddhism are “two wings of a bird… Buddhism helps one understand what authentic Jewish spiritual practice is”.

All this being said, there is one primary reason that I think Buddhism holds a strong draw for Jews. Up until now I have been calling Buddhism a religion, but many Buddhists actually do not consider Buddhism to be a religion but more of a practice or philosophy. “Buddhism is ontologically not a religion. ‘Buddhism’ does not exist: it is a Western designation for the path and philo-praxis offered by Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni… to solve the existential problem of suffering through self-directed meditation” says Mira Niculescu in I THE JEW, I THE BUDDHIST: Multi-Religious Belonging as Inner Dialogue. The Buddha never mentioned G-d in his teachings and Buddhism is non-theistic in its beliefs. It can therefore be argued, that following Buddhism is no more Judaically forbidden than learning philosophy or dedicating one’s life to a pursuit such as sports.

Image of the Buddha Shakyamuni Statue in Seiryōji, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

Despite Jews having a history of conflict with most other religions, this is not the case with Buddhism, and importantly, one need not ‘convert’ to Buddhism in order to meditate, or follow the teachings of the Buddha. One can spend their entire life in Buddhist practice without ever taking a formal oath or covenant to become a Buddhist. So those who wish to remain Jewish and dislike the idea of converting to a different religion, need not do so to practice Buddhism. There is, moreover, no genetic lineage to Buddhism, so a Jew may practice Buddhism while still recognizing their Jewish ethnicity and even seeking to pass their native Jewish lineage to their children.

Rakan, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

So, maybe on balance, it really is appropriate for the National Library of Israel, as the Library of the Jewish people, to have so much Buddhist art in its collections. After all, it seems that Buddhism is as Jewish a religion as you can get!

The First, Last, and Only Female Hasidic Rebbe

Would you break all the traditions of your society, turn against the will of your family, and shatter all the boundaries that you have known to be true in order to follow your destiny? Chana Rochel Verbermacher did just that – breaking out of all the known gender stereotypes to make her own way in a world dominated by men, Chana decided to become the first, and only, Hasidic female Rebbe.

Hasidic Art and the Kabbalah, Batsheva Goldman Ida, Boston: BRILL, 2017, Brill's Series in Jewish Studies, the National Library of Israel. Front cover image: Jan Piotr Norblin (1745-1830) - A Jew studying (1781-1784), Ablakok, Wikimedia Commons and Eulogy of Chana Rochel, the Indiana Jewish Post and Opinion, October 5, 1988, the Historical Jewish Press Collection, at the National Library of Israel

Would you break all the traditions of your society, turn against the will of your family, and shatter all the boundaries that you have known to be true in order to follow your destiny? Chana Rochel Verbermacher did just that – breaking out of all the known gender stereotypes to make her own way in a world dominated by men, Chana decided to become the first, and only, Hasidic female Rebbe.

Hasidic Art and the Kabbalah, Batsheva Goldman Ida, Boston: BRILL, 2017, Brill’s Series in Jewish Studies, the National Library of Israel. Front cover image: Jan Piotr Norblin (1745-1830) – A Jew studying (1781-1784), Ablakok, Wikimedia Commons

Traditionally speaking, a Hasidic Rebbe was a spiritual leader of a sect or area of Jews in pre-war Ashkenazi Europe. The Rebbe served as a teacher, mentor, and guide to their followers. Often seen as a conduit between his followers and G-d, the Rebbe’s teachings were considered authoritative and binding. Hasidic Rebbes were highly revered in their communities, and their guidance and support were sought for nearly every important decision, including halakhic rulings, what to name one’s baby, who to marry and what moral decision to take in a particular situation. One thing was as certain as the beards on their face and the hats on their heads: they were all men.

This was the world that Chana Rochel Verbermacher was born into in 1805. In the religious shtetl village of Ludmir (then in Russia, now in Ukraine,) Chana was the daughter of deeply religious Hasidic parents. Her mother was the image of modesty in the way she dressed, spoke (or more likely didn’t speak) and dutifully ran her household. Her father, Monesh Verbermacher was a scholar and businessman. He was wealthy and well-liked, and privileged to study under the famous Rabbi Mordechai Twersky, also known as the Maggid of Chernobyl. Chana Rochel had all the ingredients to grow up into a perfect Hasidic young lady – pious parents, a good dowry, and an honorable family name – what more could she have wanted, right?

Rabbi Mordekhai Twersky, Avraham Shabadron Portrait Collection, 1839-1903, the National Library of Israel

Perhapse it was due to this financial and social security that her father felt empowered to make a very odd decision for his daughter – to give her an education! Any education would have been bizarre for a girl in those days, but even more strange was that he decided to teach her Torah as well! She was his only daughter and he was adamant that she should be knowledgeable in both Jewish and worldly matters. Chana Rochel studied Talmud, Tanach, Halakhah and Midrash and could also read and write in Hebrew – which all made for a very impressive shidduch resume indeed! She was also beautiful, a not unsignificant fact in those days, and she was soon engaged to a young scholar from her village – a good match for a good girl.

Map of the shtetl of Ludmir, Center for Jewish Art Collection, CJA Jewish Architecture, Ukraine, Volynska obl., Volodymyr Volynskyi Włodzimierz Wołyński, Ludmir, Photographer: Vitalii Rogozov, the National Library of Israel
Map of the shtetl of Ludmir, Center for Jewish Art Collection, CJA Jewish Architecture, Ukraine, Volynska obl., Volodymyr Volynskyi Włodzimierz Wołyński, Ludmir, Photographer: Vitalii Rogozov, , the National Library of Israel
Descriptions of the shtetl of Ludmir, Photographer: Yulii Lifshitz, CJA Jewish Architecture, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

This could have been the end of our story – Chana could have married, popped out a bunch of children and died unknown from smallpox or shock, or some other such medieval ailment. But no, for that was certainly not in her nature. Instead, her engagement left her distraught and withdrawn. She didn’t want to go through with the marriage but couldn’t find a way out of the betrothal without disgracing her family name. In the midst of her turmoil, her beloved mother passed away. Shaken and in grief, the groom’s family agreed to delay the wedding while Chana mourned.

Ludmir Shtetl, Photographer: Yulii Lifshitz, Center for Jewish Art Collection CJA Jewish Architecture, the National Library of Israel
Ludmir Shtetl, Photographer: Yulii Lifshitz, Center for Jewish Art Collection CJA Jewish Architecture, the National Library of Israel

Chana’s complexion clouded with sorrow and eventually she stopped leaving her bedroom, except to visit her mother’s grave. One day on an excursion to the cemetery, she tripped and knocked her head, leaving her unconscious. She was taken home to recover in the care of her father but when she regained her strength, she made a statement that no one would forget, claiming to have been given a new soul which had been promoted to a higher spiritual level by G-d Himself. Promising that she would never again belong to another man, she broke off her engagement and claimed that she no longer belonged to the material world and had instead entered a spiritual plain.

Chana Rochel Verbermacher subsequently made a decision to accept the full range of mitzvot and Jewish laws upon herself, which were usually only performed by males, especially in the 19th century. She would wear male religious garb, read from the Torah, and obligate herself in the positive timebound mitzvot reserved for men. She also continued with her Jewish education, immersing herself in religious study and devotedly praying three times a day.

She soon gained fame, both from those who revered her and those who decidedly disapproved of her lifestyle. But as the shtetl watched on with open mouths, the wonder she garnered was mainly favorable! She took on a new title, as friends and family started referring to her either as the Maiden of Ludmir, or the Holy Virgin. Being that the latter is usually associated with Mary mother of Jesus, the Maiden of Ludmir was the title that stuck!

Chana Rochel Verbermacher built up a following. People of all genders started attending her Jewish study hall, funded by her family inheritance, to learn from her. She would lead prayer services, give religious classes and teach on important matters of Torah. Just as men would flock to the study halls of other Hasidic Rebbes, they would also queue up outsider her beit midrash to hear her teach and grant answers to halakhic questions, as well as give rulings over Jewish and moral dilemmas. Scholars and Rabbis would also come to hear her, giving Chana an additional layer of legitimacy. According to Nathaniel Deutsch’s book, The Maiden of Ludmir, most of her followers were impoverished but pious men and women. While more grand religious courts were the trend for the rich and honored men of the community, these courts were sometimes exclusionary or simply intimidating, so when Chana Rochel set up her own religious court within her study hall, it became popular with the poor and marginalized religious folk of the shtetl.

Synagogue of Lublin with a woman (possibly Chana Rochel) sitting at its entrance, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection,  the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Whether from shock over his daughter’s new-found fame, or simply from old age, Monesh Verbermacher passed away, giving his daughter even more leeway to practice her role as a Hasidic leader. She holed herself up in her study hall, making religious rulings in her court, teaching the community and greeting those who came to pray and learn. During this time, she gained a further reputation for possessing supernatural powers. Sick individuals would approach her to be healed, single youngsters would come to her for blessings of marriage, and those in distress would bequest her to ease their suffering. Whether or not she was actually able to help these people, her reputation spread and her steady stream of visitors never ceased, so it’s clear that at the very least, she was recognized by many as a person truly capable of working miracles.

What is even more surprising (yes, even more surprising than being a miracle-worker) was that many in the old, traditional shtetl seemed to accept her as a Hasidic Rebbe! She took on the roles of the Rebbe wholeheartedly: Giving blessings and permits to her community members; receiving audiences; presiding over the weekly shabbat tisch (the third meal of the shabbat, led by the Rebbe in accompaniment of his scholars and fellow Hasidic followers); and delivering teachings and lectures both at the tisch meal and in synagogue on the Sabbath (even though many sources suggest that she did this from behind a veil or screen in order to sustain her modesty).

She even took on the more kabbalistic practices of Hasidic Rebbes, including receiving kvitlach (prayer request notes from members of the community), and giving out shirayim from her plate (leftovers from her meal, eaten by followers in great reverence of her every act).

Years passed in this manner, but they say that good things can never last, and that’s a great shame. As Chana Rochel gained more influence and prestige, the more powerful men of the town started to revolt. Maybe they were afraid of a woman stealing their limelight, or maybe they simply couldn’t handle the crush to their ego when they saw that a mere woman could do their job better than them, but either way they started to rebel, almost inevitably. Chana gained a strong opposition group who claimed that her seeming piety was actually a manifestation of Satan and the evil eye, and rendered her impure.

The Maiden of Ludmir: A Jewish Holy Woman and Her World, Nathaniel Deutsch, London: University of California Press, 2003, the S. Mark Taper Foundation Imprint in Jewish studies, the National Library of Israel

As Chana continued to shatter the boundaries of femininity, her very being put the shtetl system itself at risk. Women were meant to wed and have children, not teach! Women could not remain unmarried virgins, and there was a deep fear that other women would follow her lead and the whole community structure would come crashing down – of course this was a system dominated by men, so their fear of the establishment’s downfall was understandable. Chana Rochel found herself under immense pressure to abandon her controversial practices and change her lifestyle. As she continuously batted off these attacks, many of the townsmen were determined to do whatever they could to get rid of this female leader, an unmarried female leader no less! And one who practiced mysticism! It was beyond belief! In their efforts to ruin her reputation, anything and everything was used against her: it was even claimed that a malevolent spirit possessed Chana. But mere hate speech wasn’t going to ruin Chana Rochel’s career – no – for that they needed something more powerful, like marriage.

One of her father’s dying wishes was for Chana to sit down and talk to his Rebbe, the prominent Maggid of Chernobyl, to discuss her illicit actions. She declined his pleas at that time, but as the pressure from her community grew, she finally agreed to at least meet with him, for he was, after all, the most eminent and highly respected Rabbi in the entire area. The Maggid of Chernobyl wasn’t accustomed to many private intercessions into the lives of his followers, and certainly not for a woman, but for 40-year-old Chana he made an exception. We will never know what he said during this private meeting, but by the end of the consultation the Maiden of Ludmir had agreed to marry and thus assume her ‘rightful’ role as a woman. He convinced her to stop teaching and settle down as a traditional Hasidic house wife, and to the public he issued a statement that her body had been temporarily possessed by the soul of a Tzaddik who he had exorcised and would thus no longer bother the town with his tomfoolery.

Rabbi Mordekhai Twersky’s religious teachings from his private notebook, Avraham Shabadron Portrait Collection, 1839-1903, the National Library of Israel

Ada Rapoport-Albert explains in her article On Women in Hasidism: S.A. Horodecky and the Maid of Ludmir Tradition, that by agreeing to the Maggid’s mandate for her marriage, she was essentially invalidated as a religious leader and pushed into a traditional female role that undermined her as a teacher and Rebbe. Perhapse it was because of this that the marriage was not consummated, and ended very soon after it began. After the annulment of her second marriage, Chana was seen as a total outcast and suffered greatly. She was no longer serving as a Rebbe and her followers abandoned her, believing that Chana was no longer spiritually pure and that the spirit which had possessed her to become a Tzaddik was no longer with her. To make matters worse, no one in this community would marry a woman who was essentially divorced not once but twice, and she was labelled as an outcast and a maiden until her final days. The townsmen had ruined her life.

No longer being able to live in her small shtetl, Chana Rochel Verbermacher left Europe and traveled to the Land of Israel to settle in Jerusalem in 1859. Hasidism was not as strong in the Holy Land as it was in Eastern Europe, but her name proceeded her wherever she went, and a small group of loyal followers awaited her arrival eagerly. She started teaching Torah again, this time to smaller groups, and became a sort-of undercover community leader. Aware of how her previous fame had nearly destroyed her, she kept her classes small and her religious rulings quiet, but she once again began to lead those around her in moral, halakhic and scholarly matters. In the 1860s and 1870s there is documentation suggesting that Chana Rochel belonged to the Volhynian Kolel, a Hasidic learning institute of Ashkenazi Jews who received funds from their home countries, while dedicating their lives to the study of Torah. This was an institution designed for male scholars, but archives have been found confirming that Chana Rochel did in fact both learn and teach at the kolel.

Chana also resumed her Sabbath classes, and groups of students would come on Saturday afternoons to hear her recite words of Torah. Every Rosh Chodesh, the Jewish new month, she would lead students and scholars to the Tomb of Rachel to pray, and she would also perform Kabbalistic rituals intended to hasten the arrival of the Messiah, but these were done with small private audiences and groups of holy men and women, so unfortunately the exact details of these rituals are not something we have record of today.

Tomb of Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, findagrave.com, memorial, Jared 47964612, Mount of Olives Cemetery, Jerusalem

An unmarried, childless woman, Chana Rochel Verbermacher spent her final year in Jerusalem, before passing away on the 22nd of Tammuz, when she was buried on the Mount of Olives (there is some disagreement on the year of her death, some sources note 1888, others 1892). Chana Rochel Verbermacher – the Maiden of Ludmir, did something never done before, and never done since – she was and remains the only female Hasidic Rebbe to ever have lived. Driven underground, this did not change the fact that she was a true Tzaddik, teacher and leader, trailblazing the way in a world that tried to repress her every move.

Eulogy of Chana Rochel, the Indiana Jewish Post and Opinion, October 5, 1988, the Historical Jewish Press Collection, at the National Library of Israel

The Maggid of Chernobyl was correct in saying that she possessed the soul of a righteous person, but where he was mistaken was that her achievements should be credited to a man. She never drew on men for her authority, or relied on a husband or father to speak on her behalf – she was a woman through and through and it was in spite of all the barriers that this created for her that she excelled. She was considered a failure by her community – unmarried and expelled from the shtetl, but she was far from a failure. She broke all the glass ceilings, as well as the ceilings which were far more opaque too.

Chana Rochel’s legacy – article about the Maiden of Lublin, The Australian Jewish Herald, September 5, 1947, the Historical Jewish Press Collection, at the National Library of Israel
Chana Rochel’s legacy – article about the Maiden of Lublin, The Sentinel, May 12, 1966, the Historical Jewish Press Collection, at the National Library of Israel
Chana Rochel’s legacy – article about the Maiden of Lublin, J. The Jewish News of Northern California, January 26, 1951, the Historical Jewish Press Collection, at the National Library of Israel

Chana Rochel was an anomaly within her community, and even today would be considered on the margins of religious society, but it is because of this unique and brilliant life that we can look up to her courage and see how she managed to walk alone with her head held high to fulfil what she knew was her purpose in life. Filled with awe and reverence, we can say with certainty that her life was exceptional: the only female Hasidic Rebbe to ever have lived.

The Three Jewish Monsters Charged With Saving the World

How is the balance in nature maintained? Well, with the help of three monsters from Jewish mythology, of course! One that lives in the sea, one that moves through the air and another that roams the earth. Naturally, no other creature dares to mess with these guys…

Leviathan, Ziz and Behemoth. Ambrosiana Bible, 1238, Ulm, Germany. Ambrosiana Library, Milan

There is an entire subgenre of disaster movies devoted to terrifying monsters like King Kong or Godzilla, who are hell-bent on destroying everything around them. The monster is typically either created or set free by human intervention, wreaking havoc and chaos on the citizens of the world, or at the very least, New Yorkers.

Medieval Jews saw these matters differently, however. Long before anyone noticed the catastrophic damage human civilization was causing to the environment, the people of the Middle Ages (Jews, Christians and Muslims), whose worldview was dominated by a religious viewpoint, perceived nature as a harmonious system in which no single factor could overtake the others and thereby disrupt the world balance and tilt the scales towards disaster.

This thinking is reflected in the traditions surrounding the three great beasts mentioned in the Bible and Jewish mythology. Each represents a different category of animals: a beast of the sea, a beast of the land and a beast of the air. And each one, in its own terrifying way, maintains nature’s delicate balance.

The Destruction of Leviathan, Gustav Dore, 1865. This work depicts God destroying the legendary Leviathan as described in Isaiah

“In that day the Lord with His sore and great and strong sword shall punish Leviathan the piercing serpent, even Leviathan that crooked serpent; and He shall slay the dragon that is in the sea”

(Isaiah 27:1)

The first great monster-beast is the Leviathan, who rules the creatures of the sea and is mentioned in the Book of Job and elsewhere in the Bible. Leviathan is sometimes referred to as a being that challenged the rule of God, much like the taninim (mentioned in Genesis 1:21 and translated alternatively as “great sea creatures”, “great sea monsters” or “great whales”). Bible scholars see this as proof that the biblical Leviathan is a remnant of even more ancient mythologies, for example that of the Ugaritic culture, whose lore influenced and penetrated the Bible. Christianity adopted the image of the Leviathan as a symbol of satanic power and of evil. The gradual evolution of this theme has had a lasting cultural effect – think Moby Dick, the great white whale of Herman Melville’s classic novel.

Jews in the Middle Ages, however, were able to reconcile with the Leviathan and made the beast one of the three guardian monsters presiding over the world order. And so it was transformed from a kind of mighty sea serpent or giant crocodile (some even described it as a terrible dragon) into a fish of gigantic proportion that ensures that none of the other fish in the sea overtakes and destroys their brethren. In modern Hebrew, the word leviathan means “whale”.

The second monster-beast rules over the creatures of the air, in simple terms – birds. But to complicate things slightly, we’ll just let you know it has two names: Ziz and Bar Yochnei. Unusual names for sure, but both appear in the Bible. Ziz is mentioned in Psalms 80:14 in the original Hebrew (the word is generally lost in translation to English).

Although it is not clear who or what is the ziz mentioned in the Hebrew biblical text, the Jewish sages understood this mysterious name as belonging to a miraculous bird that was so big, its wingspan could block out the sun. As in this midrash in Genesis Rabbah 19:4:

“Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon said the bird Ziz is pure and when it spreads its wings it covers the sun … and Adam was created after all to rule over all.”

In Jewish mythology, Ziz is identified with the legendary bird Bar Yochnei mentioned in the Talmud: “Once an egg of the bird called Bar Yochnei fell, and the contents of the egg drowned sixty cities and broke three hundred cedar trees” (Bekhorot 57b). If you missed the hint, what the sages are saying is that if one egg of this bird could do all that damage, just imagine how big the bird must have been!

The third monster rules over the creatures of the land. In Hebrew writings is it called Behemoth and is described as a gigantic bull.

“Behold now Behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.

Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly.

He moveth his tail like a cedar; the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.

His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.

He is the chief of the ways of God; He that made him can make His sword to approach unto him.

Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play.

He lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed and fens.

The shady trees cover him with their shadow; the willows of the brook compass him about.

Behold, he drinketh up a river and hasteneth not; he trusteth that he can draw up the Jordan into his mouth.

Will any take him with his sight, or bore his nose with a snare?”

(Job 40:14–24)

Since the 17th century, biblical scholars have identified the Behemoth with the hippopotamus. Etching by William Blake of the Behemoth and Leviathan

However, with all due respect to the supremacy of the three monsters over other beasts, it was important to subordinate them to God because none were mightier or stronger than Him or could threaten His unwavering rule. Therefore, Jewish lore tells us that the first two beasts (Leviathan and Ziz) were created on the fourth day, and the Behemoth on the fifth day.

Needless to say, the three monsters are busy all year round. At the beginning of the summer, autumn and winter seasons they take part in a special ceremony. Each sounds a special warning to all the other animals –  the Behemoth roars, the Ziz screams and the Leviathan stirs the sea – in case any creature feels tempted to multiply or grow excessively and thus bring life in the world to an end.

These three mighty beasts were also given a messianic role. A fierce battle between the Leviathan and Behemoth is described as taking place in the End of Days. At its climax, both will be killed, and their meat will be served to the righteous at a spectacular banquet in heaven.

No doubt, the significance of the three monsters sounds strange to our modern ears. But perhaps there is still something to learn from them regarding the balance of nature. After all, experts have been warning us now for decades of the excessive dominance of one animal in particular – the human – who has been wreaking havoc on the entire ecosystem for a quite a while now: on land, in the air and in sea.

Unveiling the Connection: Why We Read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot

Each Shavuot Jews gather to read the Book of Ruth… but why? The Book of Ruth doesn’t seem to have any connection to this joyous festival! Dig a little deeper however, and we can find many intricate hidden harmonies and surprising ties between the timeless tale of Ruth and the cherished holiday of Shavuot

Book of Ruth, work photographed by Ze'ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

The Book of Ruth, read on the festival of Shavuot, documents the story of a young Moabite woman named Ruth and her journey of faith and devotion. The book is set during the time of the Shoftim (judges), a period of instability and moral decline in ancient Israel. The story begins with Naomi, an Israelite woman, and her husband Elimelech leaving their home in Bethlehem due to famine, and settling in the land of Moab. There, their two sons, Machlon and Chilion, marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. However, tragedy strikes when Elimelech and both of his sons die, leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law alone. Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem and urges her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab and find new husbands. Orpah agrees, but Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, asserting her loyalty by famously declaring, “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your G-d, my G-d.”

Ruth und Boaz, Henri-Frédéric Schopin, 1804-1880, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

Upon their arrival in Bethlehem, Ruth goes to work in a field to provide for Naomi and herself. There, she catches the eye of Boaz, the wealthy landowner and Israelite, and Boaz shows kindness to Ruth, providing her with extra food and protection. Naomi recognizes the spark between Ruth and Boaz, and encourages Ruth to make her intentions known to him. Following Naomi’s advice, Ruth approaches Boaz and sets a feminist precedent by proposing marriage to him! Boaz agrees to marry her and look after both Ruth and Naomi, and a little while later the couple gives birth to a son named Oved, who unbeknownst to them will become the grandfather of King David.

Noémie et Ruth, Hector le Roux, 1908, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Book of Ruth is a beautiful and inspiring story of loyalty, faith, and the strength of women. It teaches us about the power of redemption and kindness, and how even in the darkest of times, G-d’s plan can unfold in ways we could never have imagined. That being said, it is incredibly unclear why this story is read on the holiday of Shavuot.

Shavuot is a festive Jewish holiday that occurs 50 days after Pesach (Passover). It is a dual celebration to commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and also the spring harvest season in Israel. This gives way to a number of traditions: participating in all-night Torah study sessions to mark the giving of the Torah, eating dairy foods like the ancient Israelites did in the desert in the days leading up to the giving of the Torah, feasting on seasonal and exotic fruits to mark the annual yield, and decorating synagogues with flowers to symbolize the harvest. In synagogue, processions take place as community members dance and sing while parading with their Torah scrolls, while children brandish fruits on sticks and eat sweets. As Jews mark the giving of the Torah and the end of the harvest season, these traditions make sense and fit in perfectly with the symbolism of the day.

Meggilat Rut, a gift for Shavuot, the Likkud party religious division, the National Library of Israel

What doesn’t make sense is how the Book of Ruth relates to this festival at all! But as it happens, the answer lies just beneath the surface.

A kibbutz member carries a milk can, 1941, Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection, the National Library of Israel
Shavuot celebrations, 1970, IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the National Library of Israel

One simple link between the festival of Shavuot and the Book of Ruth is that the story actually takes place around the time of Shavuot. We learn that – out of desperation – Naomi traveled to Bethlehem on Pesach despite the prohibition of traveling during the festival, and from this we can calculate that her reunion with Boaz took place on or around the time of Shavuot. This is further backed up by the fact that when Naomi and Ruth reach Bethlehem, they work in the field harvesting grain. This points us to the fact that the Book of Ruth takes place during harvest season. Shavuot celebrates the end of the wheat and barley harvest (the bikkurim), so this holiday is an appropriate time to read from a story that took place on Shavuot, centuries ago.

Book of Ruth, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

In the Torah portion of Vayikra (23:16-21) the verses deal with the laws of harvest, and explain that one corner of every field should not be gathered, so that the needy may take from those crops. Because the Book of Ruth takes place during harvest season, Boaz was actively practicing this Jewish law, and the Book of Ruth actually recalls his performance of the mitzvah as he leaves a corner of his field for the needy women, Naomi and Ruth, as well as instructing the other workers to treat these poor women kindly. Thus, during the harvest season of Shavuot, we read this story to be reminded of this charitable act that must be completed while gathering crops.

Ruth and Naomi, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Another possible connection between the Book of Ruth and Shavuot is that both have central themes of kindness. The purpose of the Torah is to guide Jews to become better people and through the Book of Ruth we are introduced to two role models: Naomi, who is compassionate, charitable and brave, and Ruth, who is loyal and a woman of faith. Therefore, reading a story which helps Jews hone these skills on the very day that the Torah was given is suitably apt. The people of Moab were actually ostracized from Israel due to their bad character traits according to the biblical narrative, but Ruth is a perfect example of how there is always room for growth and that no matter one’s background, there is always an opportunity to become an exemplary person, which is also a central message in the Torah.

The Book of Ruth, photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

There is possibly no other Jewish story which so adeptly demonstrates the power of compassion and generosity as Ruth, in which we see characters breaking all expectations and going above and beyond the expected norm with their kindness: Ruth herself is so virtuous that she not only has an entire book in the Bible named after her, but also brings redemption to her nation of Moab and is merited with being the great-grandmother of King David. Naomi is also one such praise-worthy woman, who suffered immense shame and disgrace, yet picked herself back up, stood with pride even when she knew that she would be shunned by her community, and took control of a difficult situation in order to look after her family. She is the ultimate example of self-sacrifice and a strong female character. And finally Boaz, who is described (Ruth, 3:9) as a “redeeming kinsman” – a charitable and honorable man who protects even those who are below his own stature.

Boaz and the notables of the town, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

As the Jewish belief goes, their collective kindnesses brought together a broken family to create a child whose lineage is prophesied to bring forth the Messiah and end all hatred and evil in the world. Both the Torah and the story of Ruth are based on the Jewish value of chesed (loving-kindness) and thus it is appropriate to read this book on the day on which the Torah was given.

We’ve mentioned King David a few times now, and he really can’t be forgotten in connecting the Book of Ruth with the festival of Shavuot. The Book of Ruth actually ends with a list of King David’s genealogy, with Ruth of course being his great-grandmother. Moreover, King David was both born and died on Shavuot (Talmud Yerushalmi, Chagigah, 2:3) as the Gemara says that the holiest people die on the same day that they were born (Rosh Hashanah 11a.) Therefore, we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot to recall King David and read the story of his ancestry in his honor. Just as we often use the anniversary of one’s death to recount their life story, so to do we do this on Shavuot with King David.

A Shavuot celebration, Kibbutz Kinneret, 1970-80, this item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Kvutzat Kinneret Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.
Shavuot celebrations at Pika school – “The land has given a harvest”, this item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Oded Yarkoni Historical Archives of Petach Tikva, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Interestingly, conversion also plays a role in the joining together of Shavuot and the Book of Ruth. Of course, conversion is a strong theme in the Book of Ruth, as Ruth tells Naomi that she wants to become part of the Israelite nation and abandon her own Moabite roots. The Sefat Emet says that Shavuot is an appropriate time to recall Ruth’s conversion to Judaism for a few reasons: Firstly, because it was only upon the Jews receiving the Torah that they became ready to teach it to all those who wanted to be part of the faith, like Ruth; and seeing Naomi accept Ruth should teach us to accept all people who wish to take on the mitzvot for themselves. Secondly, in receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the People of Israel were essentially converting to Judaism, as they were deciding to take on the Jewish laws for the first time. Because Ruth chose to convert to Judaism, she merited to become the ancestor of the Messiah, and similarly upon accepting the Torah, the Jewish people merited to become the Children of G-d. Ruth was already 40 years old when she became Jewish (Midrash Rabbah, Ruth 4:4) and this shows us that Judaism is not limited to those of a specific background, and in fact any person of faith can take the Torah laws upon themselves with due dedication.

Ruth and Boaz, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

We are taught that when the Jewish people went to Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah, they immersed in the mikve and the males were circumcised, just as any convert to Judaism must do, so of course on the anniversary of this event, we should read about the first ever convert to Judaism!

We actually learn from the Book of Ruth how to conduct a Jewish conversion: The Rambam says that we follow Naomi’s instruction: we tell a potential convert about the basics of the religion, we make sure that they have no undesirable motives for converting, and then warn the convert that Judaism can often be difficult. If they still want to join the religion, we must allow them to do so and then teach them the more intimate laws. This is how Naomi addresses Ruth, and Ruth tells Naomi that she will not be deterred – whatever she is signing up for, she is in! Just as during the original festival of Shavuot on Mount Sinai the Jewish people said – “We will do and then we will listen” – so too did Ruth.

Ruth, Henry Ryland, 1910-1914, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

We mentioned previously that the Jewish people took on all the mitzvot at Mount Sinai, but actually they only accepted 606 commandments at that time. Maybe this seems strange considering the fact that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. However, gentiles are also required to observe 7 of the 613 laws (the 7 Noachide Laws,) which the People of Israel were keeping even before receiving the Torah. Thus, only 606 new laws were introduced on the festival of Shavuot. This was comparable to Ruth. Her acceptance of the additional 606 laws of Judaism was analogous to the Jewish people’s acceptance of these laws, emphasized in the story by the fact that her name רות has the numerical value of 606!

Many of the main tenets of the Torah are also taught in the Book of Ruth. Through her story (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Yevamot 47B) we learn the laws of the Sabbath, preparation for the Sabbath, laws of family purity, and idol worship, rules of punishment, how to greet one another, and the laws of Jewish burial! As Ruth decides to take on these important tenets of the Jewish faith, so too do Jews reaffirm their commitment to these mitzvot on Shavuot. Moreover, reading a story which includes so many of the fundamental elements of the Torah seems more than appropriate on the festival of receiving the Torah!

Ruth, Tanach, 1971, Ephemera Collection, the National Library of Israel

Perhapse even more significantly, we are taught the importance of mitzvot in general in the story of Ruth, which, as the essence of Torah, makes it the optimal story to read in order to mark the giving of the Torah. In the Book of Ruth, Boaz was a man of stature within his community. He was 300 years old and had amassed a big family and great wealth in those years (I Chronicles 2:11Rashi, Bava Batra 91a) so he really had no reason to take in the needy Ruth and Naomi. That being said, he was also a man of faith who believed in doing good deeds. His moral actions were rewarded with the prophecy that his offspring would include the Messiah. The Sefat Emet teaches that a holy life is made up not only by observance of religious laws, but also of good deeds, and Boaz was the perfect example of that.

Ruth, Alexandre Cabanel, 1823-1889, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

Ruth experienced many hardships in her simple pursuit of observing the Torah. Jews believe that this can inspire them to be more appreciative of the Torah that they were given on the festival of Shavuot, and thus the reading of the Book of Ruth during the morning prayer service on Shavuot is a custom which dates back to the Talmudic era (Soferim 14:16). The connection between the Book of Ruth and Shavuot hasn’t always seemed clear perhaps, but upon deeper inspection, it is unquestionably no coincidence. This brilliantly crafted story that can’t help but inspire loyalty, faith, and above all, kindness.