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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.